TV, Book, Movie & Podcast Roundup – May 2019

Welcome to June! 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 TV…

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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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Fleabag and the Masterpiece criteria

The word masterpiece is too often thrown around with abandon in this hyperbolic day and age, but the term might well be apt for the BBC comedy drama Fleabag, which reached a much anticipated conclusion this week.

Writer and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge had to be talked into developing a follow up to her nihilistic dark comedy from 2016, in which she played the titular, unnamed ‘Fleabag’; a grief-stricken early thirty-something in modern London using sex as coping mechanism for her guilt and attachment issues. While it sounds intense on that description, Fleabag was anything but, as the hugely impressive second season has proven. Fleabag was beautiful, insightful, sad, moving, melancholic and laugh out loud funny, often in the most mordant and inappropriate way.

What qualifies it as a masterpiece? That’s the question. What makes it, potentially, as important a piece of comedy and drama to deserve a place among the recognised greats.

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The Sense of an Ending: Game of Thrones, Lost and Delayed Anticipation

There really is nothing like an ending.

We are obsessed, as audiences, with endings. At times we lose sight of how important the journey is of the stories we digest precisely because of how obsessed we are at what will happen in the grand denouement. Often it takes rediscovering a series long after it has all been said and done, taking in the breadth and scope of it, to truly understand and appreciate the piece as a complete entity. We judge so much on the destination. This is a fate about to happen with Game of Thrones, much as it did with the last true genre phenomenon of mainstream television: Lost.

Neither of these two shows are alike in any way except for one key aspect. Both of them saw their audiences become enraptured in the power of delayed anticipation like no other series before them. No other series outside of them have been so assiduously studied, examined, picked apart and theorised about, all of them, in many respects, to crack what has been most important to their audiences from day one: how they are going to end.

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Alias – ‘The Box – Pt 1’ (1×12)

If The Confession was the point of no return, The Box is the tale which catapults Alias into what is, barring one or two exceptions, a season and a half of dynamic, top drawer storytelling.

Alias was a high concept TV series from the outset. The ‘high concept’ in Hollywood vernacular defines an idea which can be distilled into a pure, accessible, often blockbuster form. ‘What if we could clone dinosaurs?’ for example with Jurassic Park, or to use another Michael Crichton example, ‘What if theme park robots became sentient and took control?’. Alias itself flaunts the high concept in its DNA, pitched essentially as ‘What if a spy found out she was working for the enemy?’. Even from Truth Be Told, Alias perhaps throws a few extras caveats into that pitch but in basic terms, that’s the point JJ Abrams’ show starts from. The Box, however, is the first episode to truly deliver on a high concept idea.

If you look at Alias across the first half of its first season, we haven’t seen an episode anything like The Box. Right from the get go, Alias engaged in a level of serialised storytelling through which it broke the 90’s mould of stand-alone, easy to syndicate episodes of television to depict a compelling, ongoing narrative journey for Sydney Bristow as she becomes more embroiled in her double-agent life with SD-6 and the CIA. Each episode, even those which carried heavily over to each other such as Reckoning and Color-Blind, tells an espionage tale on a scale which never overwhelms the broader character and narrative arcs in play: Syd & Jack’s relationship, Syd & Vaughn’s relationship, the Rambaldi mythology etc… Thus far, the spy stories have been fairly incidental and the weekly bad guys relatively disposable.

All of that changes, immediately, with The Box. The first genuine two-part story in Alias’ lifespan, labelled indeed as such, it delivers on the high concept idea with the pitch: ‘What if terrorists seize control of SD-6?’. Alias does Die Hard, basically, and without a shred of embarrassment. Writers John Eisendrath and Jesse Alexander immediately understand their reference point and the fact they are riffing, broadly, off one of the greatest examples of a high concept in Hollywood history. It only adds to the joy of The Box which exemplifies the remarkable level of confidence Alias had in its storytelling from the very beginning. Many other series wouldn’t have the balls to make The Box until maybe its third, even fourth, seasons. Alias gets it out the way as a midpoint to its debut year.

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Alias (Series Overview + Reviews)

Alias arrived at a fascinating point when it came to television.

The year was 2001 and a lot was changing in the ether around it. JJ Abrams, at this point best known as the writer of Harrison Ford weepie Regarding Henry, Michael Bay blockbuster Armageddon and show-runner of late 90’s teen hit drama Felicity, was nowhere near the producing and directing Hollywood totem he would become. His production house, Bad Robot, had not yet become the nascent Amblin of its generation. And, just nineteen days before the pilot, ‘Truth Be Told’, aired… 9/11 happened.

Abrams’ spy series already had some interesting cache behind it. Alias was a show that emerged on ABC with the intention of riding into the 21st century with a fresh storytelling model. The most successful and important TV shows of the 1990’s had almost all built their success on an episodic, network model of storytelling; 22-26 episode seasons with plenty of stand-alone stories which would serve the show well in syndication. In everything from Quantum Leap through to The X-Files, show-runners moving from the 1980’s into more of a Golden Age of television, in which some of the most key writers in both TV and cinema of the next few decades would emerge, had cleaved to the way it had been done for years.

Not Alias.

It would immediately strive for an aesthetic which would tap into a deep reservoir of retro-futurism, both aesthetically and in terms of production. Abrams and his staff came out of the gate leaning heavily into the kind of serialisation most shows in the 1990’s just didn’t do, bar a few trend-setting exception we’ll return to. The concept was both high and complex – female super-spy Sydney Bristow would find herself learning the covert CIA branch she had been working for, SD-6, was in truth the arm of a worldwide crime syndicate, and would work as a double-agent to bring down the enemy from within. Episodes would end on a cliffhanger every week and fold into each other. A surfeit of character and narrative mysteries would propel Syd’s journey along, not to mention a curious central, underlying occult and arcane mythology which tipped the show away from action-thriller and more toward science-fiction.

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