A Series of Unfortunate Events

asoue
Copyright: Netflix.

Dear Reader,

I regret to inform you that Netflix has made the baffling decision to turn A Series of Unfortunate Events into a different sort of series. The books, in which Lemony Snicket selflessly chronicled the tragic true tale of the Baudelaire orphans, have sold millions of copies and people all over the world have disgracefully delighted in the sorrowful story of these poor children. There is a great deal of misery contained within these volumes yet the books were sold as children’s literature, probably due to a malicious marketing mix-up.

Why anyone would think that a show involving a deadly house fire, an enormous serpent, killer leeches, dangerous lumber mill machinery, and terrible disguises would be suitable family entertainment is beyond me. It would have been far wiser and more commercially viable to make an 8-episode adaptation of the charming animated film The Littlest Elf instead.

A comic actor played the wretched villain Count Olaf in a film of the Series that plagued cinemas nationwide in 2004 but his repeated attempts to steal the Baudelaires’ fortune are no laughing matter and I daresay that, in their attempt to profit from the orphans’ misfortune, Paramount have something in common with the despicable count.

Now, another misguided attempt at adapting this miserable material has been made and Netflix has gone to great lengths to replicate the tone of the film. They even managed to clone Emily Browning and cast her as Violet again under the name of ‘Malina Weissman’.

The film attempted to condense the plot of the first three books into 90 minutes but the series is stretching this sorry affair into three seasons, prolonging the suffering of these brave, intelligent children. And casting a real baby as Sunny and thus forcing her to be part of this unpleasant production surely counts as some form of child abuse.

There are no photos of the elusive Mr Snicket that aren’t blurry or taken with a long-zoom lens from a great distance but casting Patrick Warburton as Lemony was an ingenious move by the show’s creators since he looks and sounds the exact opposite of how readers pictured Snicket in their heads, which will confound the many police officers and government officials looking for him.

A lot of care has clearly gone into this adaptation, with its storybook-style set design, very fine direction from Barry Sonnenfeld, perfectly acceptable performances, and high amounts of of whimsy – a word which here means ‘silliness and humour added in order to make the cruelty of this whole saga less upsetting’ – but nevertheless, anyone who decides to give this show a try should take its theme song’s advice and look away.

As a wannabe TV critic with nothing better to do, I have a self-imposed duty to sit helpless and watch every minute of these unfortunate events unfold in front of me but there is nothing forcing you to do the same. Be wary and be watchful, but do not watch this. There are plenty of other Netflix Originals available to view that would be more wholesome and worthwhile than this one, like the cartoon with the talking vegetables or the one about the snail that goes fast.

Do not be fooled into thinking that this is all some elaborate attempt at reverse psychology and binge it anyway or you will soon be surely dismayed to discover that A Series of Unfortunate Events contains exactly what it says on the tin.

With all due respect,

Daniel Angelini.

Best Books I Read in 2016

It’s rare for me to read a book that was published recently as there are so many classics and modern greats for me to catch up on that there’s not much room on my shelves for new fiction. So, none of these books are from 2016 but they were so good that I felt compelled to write a little post about them anyway. Here are my four favourite reads of last year.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murakami

murakami-hard-boiled
Copyright: Vintage.

What does a futuristic city with a mad scientist, a hapless middle-aged loner, and an economy that thrives on the big business of data protection have in common with a mystical fantasy land where unicorns graze near dark forests outside a walled Town with townfolk that discard their memories and shadows when entering through the Gates that keep them safe?

Well, more than you’d think, as the two locations anchor the seperate stories of Murakami’s weird and wonderful novel where the narratives of the city and the Town unexpectedly intertwine with and echo against each other. Alternating chapters in each setting give the novel a fast pace and plenty of cliffhangers, turning this bizarre book into an unexpected page-turner.

The futuristic Hard-Boiled Wonderland sees its nameless protagonist begin what should be a fairly simple job that becomes a complex conspiratorial headache which then escalates into a matter of life and death. The hero of this story is an unremarkable everyman with a monotonous life that is thrown into chaos by the eccentric characters he meets.

The fantastical End of the World has its protagonist, a stranger in a strange land, try to learn more about his new home and begin a new job of reading dreams from the skulls of dead beasts. The mysterious new resident reveals little about his past and his reasons for moving to this generically-named Town but is still an interesting character. The prose in these chapters is often slow, vague and abstract, which suits the beguiling but baffling place it describes, though it did force me to slow down a little as I often had to reread paragraphs to wrap my head around what was happening.

One of the best things about the book is that it’s so easy to get invested in each individual story that you’re not waiting impatiently for the two to mix. Good thing, really, as you’d be waiting quite a while, but reading about the polar-opposite lives of the book’s comically confused and quietly determined protagonists is so enjoyable that any thoughts about why or when or how HbW and EotW will connect are shoved firmly to the back of your mind. Having said that, there’s still an undeniable thrill when the first reference to the End of the World finally appears in a Hard-boiled Wonderland chapter.

Murakami is undoubtedly the most widely-known Japanese author and I’d read a lot of praise for his work over the years. This book was a nice mixture of the mad and the mundane that he’s famous for, a good starting point for a newcomer looking to jump into his vast back catalogue. The short-story collection I read next, After the Quake, was less encouraging but hopefully whichever novel of his I read next will live up to the high standard set by this one.

Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

fahrenheit-451
Copyright: Simon and Schuster.

This gripping and alarming glimpse into a dystopian future where those who own books get their houses and literature burned to ash is a sci-fi classic that deserves all the praise that it’s been given since it was published more than 60 years ago.

It’s a short but powerful story about a fireman – that is, a man who starts fires – that begins to question why exactly he and his colleagues have to find and destroy the few houses that still have illegal books in them, and why are they illegal anyway? How could a book be considered dangerous? Why was one homeowner willing to die trying to protect them?

A confrontation with the Fire Chief reveals how this society came to be and his explanation acts as a clear warning to the reader about technology becoming a distraction which encourages complacency and prevents critical and independent thought.

This warning appears to have been somewhat ignored, as reality has become slightly closer to the world described in his novel. Of course, no books are banned or burned, but it’s rather unnerving and oddly impressive to read a description about the formation of a supposed dystopia which was written decades ago and notice several similarities with modern-day life.

A few examples: In the book, everyone walks around with earbuds in ignoring each other and the scenery. Everyone stays inside watching enormous TVs and learning nothing, distracted by empty spectacle and quizzes that reward knowledge of useless trivia. People want to seem clever and cultured without putting any effort in so they look up one-page summaries of a subject and pretend to know all about it. Complex political and societal issues are reduced to a sentence or a headline and everyone’s attention span is, to put it bluntly, fucked.

The most worrying detail about Bradbury’s imagined society is that the government’s banning of books was not a contentious issue for most of the population because when the ban was introduced most people no longer bothered to read anything, they watched TV or listened to audio-dramas and no longer saw the point of reading. The revamped fire service  was created to tackle the small number of people – academics, librarians, scholars, etc – that still cared about it.

It’s a quick read and it’s wonderfully written. Bradbury’s descriptions tend to turn into poetic digressions that make the grim future which he has imagined come vividly to life.

There is anger and compassion in his storytelling. The actions of his wife and the Fire Chief cause big problems for our hero but they are still written with empathy. Bradbury is sympathetic to Mildred Montag’s sorry state, addicted to her TV ‘family’, and the boo-hiss Fire Chief is surprisingly intelligent, well-read and persuasive.

A brief note on the 60th anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451 that I read: It features almost 100 pages of short essays and notes about the creation of the novel and its film adaptation. These essays, histories and critical analyses are written by Bradbury himself, famous admirers of his novel, and the director of the film. They were informative, interesting and added a lot to my understanding of the novel, its critical reception, its inspiration and its influence.

Good Omens – Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

good-omens
Copyright: Harper Torch.

In this hilarious novel co-authored by the dearly departed Discworld creator Sir Terry Pratchett and scribble-haired gothic fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, the Rapture is rapidly approaching but things aren’t going to plan. The Antichrist has gone missing due to a careless baby-swapping error made by Crowley, a stylish demon who isn’t entirely happy with his boss’s plans and is rather fond of the planet he’s called home since the Beginning. With the help of the foppish angel Aziraphale – his best friend and also, technically, his oldest enemy – Crowley must find the missing deity before Judgement Day or all hell won’t break loose.

Meanwhile, the Four Horsemen are gathering, a demonic hell-hound is heading to Earth, the last member of a witch-hunting society is close to finding a new target and the ancient prophecies of a mad old dead woman are turning out to be bang on the money.

Hidden amid endless jokes, sharp bits of satire and footnotes poking fun at religion, the clichés of apocalyptic fiction, and life in the UK is a surprisingly complex rumination on the nature of humanity and our ongoing inner battle between being good and being bad. Don’t worry, this never comes across as preachy, as both authors care more about making you laugh than making you think, but it is there and it gives the book an unexpected depth.

Neither Pratchett nor Gaiman can remember who wrote which bit of the book and their writing styles blend together so perfectly it’s often difficult to tell. People who have read the work of either author before know what to expect but it’s also an ideal starting point for those who haven’t.

Another review I read compared this novel to being like the Book of Revelation if it were written by Douglas Adams and I’m struggling to think of a better comparison. It’s genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, playfully clever, subtly serious and has a distinctly British way of imagining Armageddon. A must-read.

The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt

the-sisters-brothers
Copyright: Granta Books.

This quirky Western has a very simple plot: Notorious bounty hunter brothers Charlie and Eli Sisters are tasked with travelling to California and killing a man. The execution, as it were, is what really makes this novel stand out.

During their travels, the two bickering brothers (are there any other kinds of brothers?) meet an assortment of odd and dangerous characters that test their friendship, their loyalty and their patience.

Some of these people wouldn’t be out of place in a Coen brothers movie and the novel has plenty of other things in common with their films, like the meandering idiots-on-an-epic-journey storyline of O Brother, Where Art Thou? that’s full of entertaining digressions, and the dry, dark humour of  True Grit and Fargo.

The relationship between grouchy arsehole older brother Charlie and his kind, sensible younger brother Eli is, speaking as an arsehole older brother, very convincing. The novel does a good job of using their reactions to the increasingly perilous and unusual situations they stumble into to demonstrate their differences and suggest that their tenuous alliance has been slowly disintegrating long before we peeked into their lives.

DeWitt’s dialogue is fun to read and his prose is nicely descriptive and wryly observant. I impulse-bought the book based mainly on its striking cover and odd title and enjoyed it so much that I bought the rest of the author’s works soon after finishing the final page.

Honourable mentions: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck, Pyramids by Terry Pratchett, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse.

2016’s Top TV: A final round-up

After giving Planet Earth 2 and Mr Robot their own posts, here’s the rest of my favourite TV series from last year.

WESTWORLD – “The Original”/”The Bicameral Mind”

westworld
Copyright: HBO.

Westworld is an ambitious sci-fi western which HBO hopes will be its next Game of Thrones. With a similarly-enormous budget, it tells the story of the hosts and owners of a futuristic theme park which the richest people in the world visit to indulge their imaginations and play around in a sprawling area full of old-timey saloons, dusty plains and red cliffs that look like they’ve been lifted from a classic western.

Guests can kill and cuddle with any host they want because all the hosts are actually incredibly-lifelike robots, each with their own programmed routine that they play out day after day, with limited amounts of improvisation allowed when interacting with the wealthy wannabe-westerners that meet them. The technology for their ‘thoughts’ and the scripts for their storylines are worked on by a team of behind-the-scenes boffins including Bernard (Jeremy Wright), who uses his fascination with the intricacies of human behaviour to make the hosts as human as robotly possible.

Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) is stuck in a damsel-in-distress role, spending all of her days getting raped, rescued, killed, repaired and reset, ready to face a new day of trauma. Maeve (Thandie Newton) is the madam in charge of a group of whores who ply their trade at the saloon of a small town at the entrance of the park. She watches as the guests indulge their basest desires and gets caught up in the bank robbery that happens without fail every afternoon.

Meanwhile, Logan (Ben Barnes) shows his co-worker William (Jimmi Simpson) around the park and William is appalled by the way that Logan treats the hosts like expendable characters in a videogame, but Logan argues that that’s the entire point of the park: to treat the humanoid hosts as badly as he wants with no consequences. There’s also a nameless regular visitor wandering around trying to find a deeper level to the park’s theatrics because he’s become bored with the standard storylines.

It all kicks off when a new update that allows the hosts to use memories of their earlier experiences to improve their improv has unexpected side-effects – Dolores starts vividly reliving the horrors of her past and Maeve grapples with a new unsettling feeling of deja-vu. The park’s owner and co-creator Dr Robot Ford (Sir Anthony Hopkins, clearly relishing the meaty material he’s been given) is working on a grand new narrative for his park and won’t let a minor technological hiccup like this stop him from completing it.

The hosts are becoming self-aware and sentient and furious, and their mysterious, menacing creator, perhaps unsurprisingly, has a bit of a god complex. Clearly, everything’s going to go horribly wrong. But how? And when?

The first season of Westworld was very promising. Its first episode was immediately engaging, immaculately-directed and exceptionally well-performed, introducing its intricate world in a way that was entertaining and fairly easy to understand. The show could easily become the mega-hit that HBO is hoping it’ll be.

Wood and Newton are both outstanding as the hosts who deal with their increasing awareness in very different ways and try to get their bearings as their pasts mix with their present. It should be no surprise that a show created by Jonathan Nolan, who also wrote Memento, has a plot that pivots around problems with recollection and unreliable memories.

The show tries to balance the fun crowd-pleasing cowboy adventures in the park with the sinister science and philosophical ‘What does it mean to be human?’ discussions in the cold glass offices of the park’s hidden headquarters. It’s a tricky mixture of moods but the soundtrack by Ramin Djawadi (working on this between seasons of Game of Thrones) expertly moves from barnstorming action to creepy contemplation and back again.

Westworld likes to keep its cards frustratingly close to its chest, which results in a lot of time mid-season where characters seem to be this close to revealing the answers to its many mysteries but then decide to be coy instead. Fortunately, the feature-length finale is full of so many big reveals and bombshells that change our understanding of what was going on that it practically demands a re-watch of the whole season. And there’ll be plenty of time to do that – the next episodes aren’t airing ’til 2018…

(Oh, and beware of spoilers and theories! I accidentally glanced at some fan-theories while reading reviews and comments about the show as it aired, then was annoyed and a little surprised when many of them – even ones that I dismissed for seeming too outlandish and unlikely – ended up being 100% accurate.)

BLACK MIRROR – “San Junipero”

black-mirror-san-junipero
Copyright: Netflix.

Another excellent sci-fi that uses technology to explore the darkest depths of humanity was a big hit this year. Charlie Brooker’s timely anthology returned to find more ways to make viewers pessimistic and paranoid about their iPhones. It’s one of the most original shows of the 21st century, its genius writing has attracted top talent both in front of and behind the camera, with big stars, directors and composers from the silver screen eager to be involved and doing incredible work, but it still feels odd to say that I was looking forward to it – is it possible to look forward to something that’s always so bleak?

Watching this can be a thoroughly unpleasant experience, a brutal punch to the stomach that leaves many who view it feeling drained, depressed and unable to even think of seeing the next episode until they’ve had a long break. This last quality makes it an odd choice for Netflix, which has shows that are tailor-made for a lengthy binge, but the streaming service became the show’s new home in 2016.

This was an experimental season, playing with expectations of what viewers expect from an episode of Black Mirror, taking its usual themes about the dangers of misused tech and applying them to different genres and styles. It incorporated the hatred-through-hashtags of a social media mob into a feature-length police procedural, used a virtual reality game to do a playful horror pastiche and explored the rapid evolution of military equipment in an episode that resembled a war movie.

Its first episode, a darkly-comic satire exploring a world where online ratings are applied to real people, was a good way to introduce the show to a global audience. Filmed in soft pastel colours that masked the script’s bite, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and an ending that’s bittersweet rather than bleak, it was a nicely-accessible ep that eased new viewers in and introduced them to Black Mirror‘s rather twisted view of the world without scaring them away.

The highlight of the season, and probably the entire series so far, was “San Junipero”, an  episode which came about after Brooker decided to mess with those who complained that his show about 21st-century-and-beyond Britain would now be too Americanised and different. He did this by writing an episode set in America. In the past.

It revolves around the romance between a shy tourist visiting a nightclub in the titular town and the confident girl she meets and falls in love with. A lot of time is spent establishing this unusual ’80s setting, the beautiful beaches and bright neon of the seaside paradise all alluringly-filmed by Gustav Danielsson and synthily-scored by Clint Mansell, and the relationship between its opposites-attract couple Kelly and Yorkie, played perfectly by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mackenzie Davis.

There are things in this episode that are rather atypical for Black Mirror, and not just the setting. There is kindness. There is joy. There is compassion. There is hope and optimism. All of this comes as a welcome relief, particularly after the harrowing “Shut Up and Dance” episode that preceded it, but there is still an ever-present worry, not created by the episode itself, but by us. After several episodes of rug-pulls and horrible twists and big reveals that make the characters’ lives immeasurably worse, it’s difficult to watch this happy couple as we wait nervously for the surely-inevitable Bad Thing to happen, hoping desperately that maybe, just this once, things will be alright in the end.

After 6 episodes of sadness and surprises which featured more nightmarish visions of the future while also breaking away from the formula the show established in its first two seasons, it feels like the show can do anything now, the possibilities are endless, which is an exciting prospect for the future of the series.

GAME OF THRONES – “Battle of the Bastards”/”The Winds of Winter”

game-of-thrones-6
Copyright: HBO.

The phenomenal fantasy finished its sixth season with a climactic battle and a finale that was quite possibly the best episode of the whole show.

Once again, the penultimate episode focussed on a big-budget bust-up in one area of the Seven Kingdoms, with a Messianic Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) facing off against the biggest of bastards Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) in a field near Winterfell. The location wasn’t quite as dramatic as previous skirmishes at the Wall or King’s Landing but it gave the episode a gritty, realistic feel and quickly became a muddy graveyard of vastly-outnumbered Night’s Watch members and Bolton soldiers.

Impressive direction from Miguel Sapochnik (who also directed the next episode, more on that in a bit) turned a show full of dragons and ice zombies into a medieval Saving Private Ryan with heart-stopping moments like Ramsay’s cruel hostage negotiation, the CGI-free shot of Jon facing a stampede of cavalry, or the claustrophobic first-person view of him struggling to escape a disturbingly-large pile of corpses as the Bolton army closes in.

Game of Thrones has produced some incredibly cinematic setpieces over the years but it’s outdone itself with this episode, which opens with Danaerys saving her city from a siege by unleashing her dragons on the unsuspecting attackers. It’s a thrilling scene which would be the standout highlight of a normal episode but it gets overshadowed by the gruelling, grounded intensity of the conflict that follows.

The season closed with “The Winds of Winter”, which was essentially 60 minutes of pure, concentrated pay-off. Every storyline in the series reached an emotional high-point and featured lots of satisfying surprises and scenes which we’ve been wanting to see for years, including a final image which the show has been building up to since its first episode.

The opening 20 minutes lead up to a moment I daren’t spoil and this section alone would have catapulted the episode to the top of the Best Episodes table, its slow build of tension and unease established from the very beginning by the small, simple idea to use piano in the soundtrack for the first time (that Ramin Djawadi, what a guy). The rest of the episode keeps up this high standard, delivering scene after scene of resolution, confrontation and, of course, death (this is Game of Thrones after all).

Even the cringe-worthy Dorne storyline got a promising development, as bitchy grandmother/secret best character Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) sailed over to sort out the mess the Martells had made and give them some much-deserved mockery.

The stage is all set for Game of Thrones‘ final act. With just two shortened seasons left, the end is in sight and not many main characters have managed to get this far. Now to wait and see whether Westeros will be overrun by White Walkers or scorched by dragons, and who will sit on that damn Iron Throne, if there’s anyone with a pulse left by the last episode.

BETTER CALL SAUL – “Nailed”/”Klick”

better-call-saul-season-2
Copyright: AMC.

Better Call Saul is on track to equal or even surpass the show it spun-off from. Oh, did I say that last time? Well, it’s still true, especially after a season like this one which built on its first to give a compelling exploration of the fractious relationship between the McGill brothers, nudge Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) further along his path to becoming Saul in a way that feels completely organic, and spend more time on its secret weapon Kim (Rhea Seehorn) who often reaps the consequences of Jimmy’s actions.

BCS is a patient, methodical show that is happy to take its sweet time with every scene but is rarely dull. It likes to play with how we see its characters, giving depth to those who seem one-dimensionally mean, revealing flaws in its good-ish guy protagonist, constantly changing how we view Chuck (Michael McKean), and making it clear that it’s not just Jimmy who’s different to his Bad self – Mike (Jonathan Banks) isn’t yet the ruthless hitman we meet in the original series.

We spend so much time seeing the everyday minutiae and silent inner struggles of these character’s lives that when something momentous does happen, it hits like a truck. One worrying scene in “Nailed” ends with a sound that made me recoil and cover my mouth in horror, and a disorienting, agonisingly-long take of a character being prodded and questioned by doctors while on a gurney is one of the most distressing scenes I’ve seen all year. The finale ends with one of those Important Conversations that are this show’s bread and butter, capped with a quiet click (or “Klick”, I suppose) that has the same impact as a gunshot.

The show also has a subtle silliness which appears in both Jimmy and Mike’s storylines. Though Mike tends to deal with grisly violence and action-heavy material, his old-codger weariness and blunt attitude provides more than a few laughs.

Saul‘s behind-the-scenes crew is made up of many of the same people who worked on Breaking Bad, which means that its writing, direction and music are all reliably high-quality. The references to its predecessor are still slipped in seamlessly and, excitingly, “Klick” heavily implies that a huge one is coming in season three.

SENSE8 – “A Christmas Special”

sense8-christmas
Copyright: Netflix.

Sneaking onto the list at the last minute is Sense8, which returned for a feature-length special this Christmas. Functioning as both a reintroduction to the series and a setup for season two, the special revealed what had happened to its psychically-linked characters over the last year.

The series has sometimes struggled with juggling its 8 very different storylines that follow characters in seperate parts of the world, each with their own supporting cast of other characters and varying wildly in tone and genre. However, this special expertly jumped between plots and gave everyone a significant moment in their own stories. It was just nice to spend time with these characters again after such a long absence. I didn’t realise how much I’d missed them.

The best part of Sense8 is when it uses its high-concept premise – 8 people born on the same day can communicate with each other telepathically, sharing emotions, knowledge and skills, even taking over each other’s bodies at will – to bring its characters together.

Masterfully-edited from gorgeous footage filmed several weeks apart at different locations on opposite ends of the globe, these scenes, whether they’re small conversations between two sensates struggling to work out what to do next or big show-stoppers like the birthday celebration, the fight, the Christmas Eve choir service and the scene where everyone, uh, comes together, are impressively well-executed and staggeringly ambitious.

No other show would even attempt most of this stuff, but the massive budget and creative freedom given to the Wachowskis by Netflix for their passion project allows them to do whatever they want. The results are stunning and often deeply moving.

There are dozens of highly-acclaimed shows nowadays which are dark or gritty or full of death, violence and despair, focussing on troubled protagonists with grim lives facing one crisis after another (e.g: well, every other entry on this list) and that’s fine in moderation but it can get a bit much.

Thank goodness, then, that a show as relentlessly optimistic and sentimental as Sense8 exists, a show where its diverse protagonists have a superpower that is basically extreme empathy, where every problem can be solved by teamwork, friendship, emotional support and the psychic equivalent of tag-team wrestling.

Even when its overly-earnest dialogue becomes mawkish, even when its efforts to connect and intertwine these storylines become confusing, it’s worth watching just because a show this bold, heartfelt, weird and so heavily focussed on the goodness in people and their potential to do great things together without race or gender or sexuality being an issue is sorely needed right now.

Honourable Mentions: The Night Of – “The Beach”, Veep – “Mother”, Stranger Things – “Holly, Jolly”, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt – “Kimmy Meets A Drunk Lady!”, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – “When Will Josh and His Friend Leave Me Alone?”.

 

Thank you to everyone who’s read all of this and I hope you’ll stick around because I’m gonna keep this blog going and see what top TV 2017 brings.

2016’s Top TV: Mr Robot Season Two

mr-robot-season-2
Copyright: USA Network

Though it has a rather daft title, Mr Robot is one of the best new shows on TV.  Its first season was thrillingly tense, fast-paced and confidently stylish. Its second was slower, less eventful and divided opinion, but I still loved it. But before we get to that, here’s a spoiler-free introduction to this gripping conspiracy-thriller.

The series follows Elliot Alderson (played brilliantly by Rami Malek), a lonely cyber-security engineer with a drug habit who prefers getting to know people by hacking into their emails and social media profiles than by talking to them face-to-face. We join him just before he meets Mr Robot (Christian Slater), a charismatic anarchist who persuades Elliot to join his hacking group fsociety, which plans to hack into E Corp, the biggest corporation in America, and erase everyone’s debt.

Mr Robot is a show that wears its influences on its sleeve. Elliot and Mr Robot’s fuck-society, boo-consumerism dialogue often sounds sounds like it’s come from Fight Club but tweaked and updated for the 21st century, its portrayal of sociopathic wealthy businessmen is reminiscent of American Psycho and its precise, carefully-composed shots are like something from a Stanley Kubrick film.

It also has an interesting gimmick: Elliot speaks to us and looks at us (via the camera) because he sees us as an imaginary friend that he created. When we’re with him, we see things from his point of view. He calls E Corp ‘Evil Corp’, so whenever the company is mentioned in his presence, he hears everyone calling it Evil Corp. His paranoia, anxiety and drug-induced hallucinations affect the show’s look and blur the line between what’s real and what’s in his head.

We also follow his oldest friend Angela (Portia Doubleday), fellow fsociety hacker Darlene (Carly Chaikin), E Corp employee Tyrell Wellick (Martin Wallström) and his cold, calculating wife Joanna (Stephanie Corneliussen), all of whom have their own issues to deal with that Elliot doesn’t know about.

Season one was a tough time for poor Elliot. While preparing for his big hack, his personal life fell apart and he became increasingly paranoid and unsure of his own mental stability. He also felt betrayed after we failed to warn him about a twist that became very obvious to us but was a devastating shock for him. He doesn’t seem to realise that it would be literally impossible for us to tell him anything, but I guess we shouldn’t hold that against him.

The second season began with Elliot struggling to recover from his mental breakdown, working on his complex relationship with Mr Robot and dealing with some severe memory loss. The rest of fsociety were struggling to move forward without their leader, Angela was struggling with her frightening new bosses, the Wellicks were struggling to stay together, and FBI agent Dominique DiPierro was introduced to hunt down the hackers but struggled to cope with the overwhelming mess that she’d stumbled into.

Every character was lost, confused and losing hope, while viewers were left in the unique position of having the main character of a show they’re watching intentionally hiding important plot information from them because he no longer trusted them.

All this made for a very different second season, much slower than the first, more conspiracy than thriller. It risked alienating viewers as it put more focus on characters who know far more than they’re letting on, whose scenes were often cryptic, vague and surreal. It was even frustrating at times as it very successfully tried to make us as disoriented and unsure of what was real as its protagonist.

According to Sam Esmail, the show’s creator, season one was originally the first act of a film screenplay that expanded into a TV show, so this season is act two – but only the first part of act two, the part where there’s a lot of setup and plenty of back-story but not a lot of plot progression. By the time we finally have a fairly clear understanding of everyone’s goals and motivations and what exactly is going on, the season’s over.

However, there was plenty to love about this year’s episodes.The lengthy scenes showing Elliot struggling with his sanity allowed the show to really go nuts (ahem) with its visuals, which were already bold and inventive, and gave us a deeper understanding of its complicated protagonist.

The show maintained and intensified its melancholy, stifling atmosphere with its trademark mixture of Mac Quayle’s distorted electronic droning and bleeping on the soundtrack and the way it frequently films characters in the bottom corners of the frame, overwhelmed by their surroundings.

Occasionally, this dour mood would be interrupted by the abrupt bursts of shocking violence and stomach-churning tension that made season one so propulsive. Few shows can create such a strong feeling of unease and dread as Mr Robot can when it wants to.

The season one episodes ‘Brave Traveller’ (or “eps1.5br4ve-trave1er.asf” to give it its proper title. Yes, the show’s episode titles are fake filenames, which must have really confused anyone who torrented it), ‘White Rose’ (“eps1.7wh1ter0se.m4v”) and ‘Mirroring’ (“eps1.8m1rr0r1ng.qt”) would have easily made my 2015’s Top TV list if I’d seen them when they premiered. They feature moments of unrelenting tension, out-of-nowhere shocks and a feeling of imminent doom that borders on apocalyptic, all rooted in the small-scale personal drama of a mentally-troubled hacker. There are similar scenes in season two…but saying where exactly would spoil the surprise.

Luckily, the show didn’t lose its wry sense of humour amongst all the gloom; one surprisingly sweet scene this season showed Elliot dreaming of his ideal, but impossible, future where everyone he knows finds peace and happiness and joins together to support him – its soundtrack is a lullaby version of Basket Case.

It’s worth mentioning again how good Mr Robot‘s lead actor is. Rami Malek is given some very difficult material (‘OK in this scene, Rami, we’re going to pour fake concrete down your throat so just pretend to choke and panic and stuff – shhh, no, don’t worry, it’ll be fine…’) and does it incredibly well. For all its wonderfully cinematic direction and creativity, the show would not work at all if we didn’t care about Elliot. Malek makes us feel a lot of sympathy for this character and when he starts another monologue-heavy one-way conversation with us and glances at the camera, it never feels gimmicky or stupid. It feels oddly genuine.

After earning our trust in season one by pulling off a stunning gut-punch of a first season, Sam Esmail tested our patience with this one, but sometimes a show can make me forget about my problems with it by sweeping me along with its sheer confidence and audacity. I didn’t always know where it was going, or why, but I was happy to stick with season two as it gave off an air of ‘Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing, now check THIS out’.

Still, I’m not going to lie, I did breath a small sigh of relief when the finale arrived and confirmed that there was actually a point to the rest of the season’s introspective meandering. Now the stage is set for a new season which will hopefully perfect the balance of slow, surreal character drama and unnerving set-pieces that make Mr Robot such a great watch.

Best Episodes: “eps2.3_logic_b0mb.hc”/”eps2.8_h1dden-pr0cess.axx”

2016’s Top TV: Planet Earth 2

planet-earth-2
Copyright: BBC.

It’s been quite a rough year but, thankfully, there was a welcome respite from the endless stream of bad news – a weekly 60-minute dose of highly-concentrated awe and wonder that would uplift and inspire even the most jaded and disillusioned viewer.

For 6 wonderful weeks, Planet Earth returned to our screens, causing many a jaw to drop and eye to water as it showed more amazing footage from many of the most extreme and environments of the world – even man-made ones. The fact that, after decades of documentaries which have pored over every inch of the planet with cutting-edge tech, there are still so many routine behaviours and remarkable events from the natural world that we are only now seeing for the first time is incredible.

Each episode featured several little vignettes following a dazzling variety of different animals and creating a narrative out of nature. These scenes were intensely emotional, full of tragedy, thrills, death and beauty, while also frequently showing how much of a prick nature can be.

Pity the poor baby iguanas who scuttle out of their sandy homes to face an ambush of snakes before they can reach their parents (these scenes were so nerve-shreddingly tense they put many big-budget thrillers to shame). Be glad you’re not one of the mountain goats who have to clamber along crumbling, razor-thin paths on a cliff face to reach the only source of water on the ground, where predators lie in wait. Marvel at the snow leopards fighting for a mate in the Himalayas. Laugh at the sloth who swims across a surging river to reach a potential partner and gets rejected.

The thrill of Planet Earth II comes from knowing that all of it is real, these things happen on a regular basis and there are millions of other moments that occur when the cameras aren’t there, many of which may be even more amazing than what the world-class crew managed to capture.

Filmed (but not broadcast) in 4K ultra-HD, the show’s higher resolution made tiny details that were previously unnoticeable crystal-clear, like a foetal tadpole breaking out of its egg early to flee from a deadly wasp while it’s transparent frog father tries to protect the other eggs.

It also allowed the show to broadcast eye-poppingly-pretty panoramic shots of a large island populated by hundreds of thousands of penguins, frosty mountain valleys that transform into lush green forests, a plague of locusts flying across Madagascar, and a peregrine falcon perched on an aerial overlooking Manhattan.

It looks nice, basically. When writing a review of this series, it’s very tempting to just type ‘It’s great because, well, LOOK AT IT!’, stick a load of pictures underneath and call it a day, but that would be lazy. There’s more to this than just eye candy.

For me, the most intriguing part of Planet Earth II was the final episode, which looked at city wildlife. There had been moments in other episodes where, in-between all the animal facts and gentle narration, Sir David Attenborough would briefly explain how humans had been making the world much worse. E.g: A parade of crabs now get attacked by crazy yellow acid-spitting ants literally called ‘crazy yellow ants’ which humans introduced to the crabs’ island, a jungle in Madagascar has been deforested so much that it’s cut the local lemur population in half, etc, etc, oh dear, oh dear.

Perhaps, I thought, the “Cities” episode would be where he’d really let loose, wagging his finger at the camera and scolding viewers for irreversibly ruining the planet with all the pollution and greenhouse gases we create that damage the habitats shown over the course of the series. It would be entirely justified, if a bit of a depressing way to end the show.

But the programme kept a light touch on its lecturing and the actual episode didn’t mention climate change once, instead giving an unexpectedly hopeful view of how humans can coexist with the natural world.

The camera crew applied the same film-making techniques they used in jungles and deserts to film skyscrapers and streets, which was a memorably odd viewing experience that gave us an exciting new perspective of very familiar territory.

There was also plenty of humour to be found in seeing animals learning to cope with humans and vice versa. Monkeys ran along rooftops to steal food from a market in Mumbai, making the locals furious, and a lonely bird in Townsville used colourful scraps of discarded rubbish to build a display to attract a mate, which even included a small felt heart.

An incredibly-edited timelapse of a city at night full of glowing neon and bright lights lead into heartbreaking footage of baby turtles on a beach struggling to find their way as the light pollution from the nearby town disoriented them. Millions of viewers watched in horror as the helpless creatures wandered away from the moonlight, which is supposed to guide them to the sea, and onto busy roads and into sewer drains. This was the only time the episode focussed on the drawbacks of city life on wild animals, which, all things considered, shows remarkable restraint from the producers.

It was a very positive hour of television. It revealed the mutually-beneficial relationship between a pack of hyenas and the residents of an African town: the hyenas get meat from the butcher shop and the locals like them because they peacefully ward off bad spirits. It showcased futuristic architecture in Singapore that created a jungle environment out of an enormous steel framework filled with flowers and trees. There were flocks of birds which flew and danced in mysterious patterns above Rome for reasons even Sir David couldn’t explain. The episode ended with an optimistic and inspiring piece to camera from the legend himself, a wonderful send-off to an unprecedented episode of this unforgettable documentary.

Last but not least, the final ten minutes of each episode had a Diaries segment dedicated to the problems faced by the camera crew on their ambitious treks to remote parts of the world. These sections were just as fascinating as the footage they filmed, answering the question that everyone asks while watching documentaries like this: “How the hell did they film that?”. The answer, it turns out, is with months of preparation, plenty of clever improvisation, tough travelling and, sometimes, quite a lot of luck.

A documentary of this calibre only comes around once a decade. Cherish it.

Best Episode: It would be cheating to say ‘all of them’ so I’ll highlight “Cities”.

2015’s Top TV: A (very, very late) final round-up

Like I say every year, there is simply too much great TV. It’s a fact. Even TV network executives have noted how it is near-impossible to keep up with all the latest critically-acclaimed content that fills our screens, especially with the deluge of output from companies like Amazon and Netflix that now produce their own shows.

There also isn’t enough time to give each show its own post, so these are the rest of the best shows and episodes I watched in 2015 (in addition to the BBC adaptations and Fargo).

BETTER CALL SAUL – ‘FIVE-O’/’PIMENTO’

better-call-saul

Better Call Saul is on track to equal or even surpass the show it spun-off from. It’s quite a bold claim, I know – Breaking Bad was a critical juggernaut that became one of the most adored and acclaimed shows of the 21st century – but with episodes as intense and emotional as ‘Five-O’ and ‘Pimento’, BCS proves that it can easily match or outdo its predecessor.

The two shows are quite different, despite sharing some of the same DNA and two main characters. Saul is a much slower show, more interested in character building and dialogue than shootouts in the desert or moments of explosive violence, though it’s certainly capable of creating tense Bad-esque action scenes when it wants to.

It also retains the previous series’ methodical storytelling, where everything each character does makes logical and emotional sense, it’s always clear how their actions follow on from what’s happened previously and how these actions then build up to unexpected moments of shocking drama, followed by episodes that examine the fallout of these events before moving onto the next big dramatic moment. In BB, these big moments were often gunfights or a death or Walt doing something horrible. In Saul, these climactic moments occur in the form of a monologue or an emotionally-charged conversation that hits just as hard as any bit of violence from That Other Show.

The series features Jimmy McGill, a criminal lawyer – but not yet the criminal lawyer Saul Goodman that we know he becomes – struggling to kick-start his career, deal with his old law firm and help his brother Chuck, who has a strange medical condition that leaves him housebound and painfully averse to electricity and sunlight. He occasionally crosses paths with parking attendant/former cop/future Walt babysitter Mike Ehrmentraut, who exists mainly on the sidelines of BCS except for his his award-worthy showcase in ‘Five-O’.

The writers resist the urge to shoehorn too many blatant references to That Other Show into Better Call Saul and every one they do slip in naturally fits into Jimmy and Mike’s story.

The show retains BB’s stellar cinematography and dry humour and turns a character who was mostly played for comic relief into a fully fleshed-out person who is unknowingly heading for a fall, which gives Better Call Saul a tragic undercurrent that bubbles under its comedic exterior. Every happy scene with his ex Kim and brother Chuck are tinged with sadness as neither are mentioned in Breaking Bad and we are left to imagine why, which brings many horrible possibilities to mind.

SHOW ME A HERO – ALL 6 EPISODES.

show-me-a-hero

A miniseries about a city council struggling with a federal court ruling to implement new public housing may not sound like gripping, must-see TV. But Show Me A Hero turns this premise into a powerful and moving examination of racism, political greed and class warfare in late 80’s New York. It’s impossible to pick a standout episode as they work perfectly together to make an unforgettable drama based on real events that deals with issues that are still relevant to modern-day America.

The series was created by David Simon and is anchored by an incredible performance from Oscar Isaac as ambitious politician Nick Wasicsko, who runs for Mayor of Yonkers and promises to oppose the court’s ruling if elected but has a change of heart and spends his term as Mayor fighting to get the houses built, battling against rival politicians and a huge public outcry from angry voters who feel that he betrayed them.

In chaotic city hall meetings, he faces a determined mob of citizens who are furious that their white and wealthy middle-class neighbourhoods would have affordable housing that lets people from the poorest parts of the city move in next door to them. They complain that this would lower their property values and bring in crime and drugs and they just don’t want to live next to minorities poor people. After these meetings, Mayor Wasicsko is demoralised and despairing, and who could blame him. This will not be an easy process.

Half of the series follows this surprisingly-intense political battle while the other focuses on some of the people that the desegregation would help, like Norma (LaTonya Richard-Jackson), who’s losing her sight and needs a carer, and Billie (Dominique Fishback) who falls for a drug dealer, and Carmen (Ilfenesh Hadera) who has emigrated to the USA looking for a better place to raise her children.

Scenes with these characters are often quietly devastating and make the dehumanising rhetoric of the racist concerned protestors sting even more. The excellent cast also features Alfred Molina, who is tremendously punchable as smug, slimy conservative Hank Spallone, and Jon Bernthal as one of Nick’s few allies, civil rights attorney Michael Sussman.

In short: It’s as good as you’d expect a show from the creator of The Wire to be.

Continue reading “2015’s Top TV: A (very, very late) final round-up”

Best Books I Read in 2015

In 2014, I reignited my love of literature by reading 25 books. Then, last year, I managed to do it again! Here are four of my favourites in no particular order.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller – Italo Calvino

if on a winter's night a traveller ©Vintage Classics

Like the world’s worst Choose Your Own Adventure book, this post-modern novel makes YOU the reader the star of the story and follows your linear but by-no-means-straightforward quest to return a misprinted copy of ‘If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller’ by Italo Calvino and find out how the book ends.

This is not as simple a task as it may seem. The book, like its title, is incomplete and every time the Reader – er, you – gets a new version of the book, it has a completely different story in it, and every time he/she reads the new story, they put the previous story to one side and become focussed on finding the rest of the new one, and there’s another Reader who’s having the same problem, and together you get caught up in an increasingly bizarre tale that starts with a simple printing error and unfolds into a sprawling international adventure.

It’s also far more engrossing, playful, clever, funny, charming, entertaining and easy to follow than any description of its story makes it seem.

What’s most impressive about the book is how it manages to forge a connection with the reader and make the second-person narration not feel like a pointless gimmick. When writing this novel, Calvino had to somehow make thousands of unknown Readers that he’d never met and would probably never meet feel personally involved in his genre-hopping tale and all he had to go on was the fact that the person bought this book, so he could discern that:

  • They read books.
  • They thought that a novel about someone who has quite a lot of trouble finishing a book would be worth reading.
  • They like a bit of post-modern gimmickry.

And that’s it. But he manages this difficult feat and I quickly got sucked in.

You might be wondering how a book like this would even work and it goes like this: every other chapter is ‘You’ doing something – getting ready to read, going to the bookshop to complain, meeting the Other Reader, travelling to a new place, getting the next chapter – and the rest are the chapters of the books that ‘You’ read, each one completely different in tone and genre and apparently unrelated to any that came before it.

The book is one big celebration of reading and language and it’s brilliant. Well done to the translator, too, who must have had a tricky job translating this meta-novel from the original Italian.

I would go on but unfortunately, because I read this right at the start of last year and stupidly decided to not write down any of my thoughts about it until now, the finer details of the story and the quality of the prose have become a bit smudged in my memory (not making that mistake again) but whatever I would have written would have probably ended with a summary that goes something like this:

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller is one of the cleverest, loveliest books I’ve ever read and I’m looking forward to diving into this incredible Italian’s entire back catalogue.

Continue reading “Best Books I Read in 2015”