2017’s Top TV: The Best of the Rest

After writing at length about how much I enjoyed American Gods, here’s the usual round-up of the rest of my favourite shows of the year,

The Good Place – “Dance Dance Resolution”/”The Trolley Problem”

the good place
Copyright: NBC/Netflix.

After mining comedy gold from offices in The Office (US), local governments in Parks and Recreation, and police stations in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Michael Schur has tackled a more ambitious environment in his newest series – the afterlife.

The Good Place follows Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) from the moment she’s told some very good and very bad news: the bad news is, well, she’s dead, but the good news is she’s now in the Good Place, a version of heaven where all of humanity’s best and brightest live out eternity in a blissful wonderland paired up with their soulmate as a reward for all the good they did during their time on Earth.

However, Eleanor didn’t do much good while she was alive, quite the opposite in fact, and feels that she must have ended up here by mistake.

American sitcoms don’t usually concern themselves too much with plot, as they’re often content to just act as a comfortable half-hour hangout where characters deal with their day-to-day lives at a leisurely pace while getting involved in increasingly-daft misadventures.

This show is different.

It delights in constantly surprising us with different aspects of its surreal setting and new information about Eleanor and her neighbours, then ending every episode in a cliffhanger that leaves us dying to see what happens next.

The plot is so chock-full of big reveals that talking about the second season without spoiling anything is actually a very difficult task.

What I can say is it’s absolutely brilliant, hilarious, and endlessly-inventive.

Highlights so far include ‘Dance Dance Resolution’, which doesn’t stop to take a breath as it zips through several seasons of potential storylines in one dizzying episode, and ‘The Trolley Problem’, where Eleanor and her friends try to explain human concepts of morality to a higher being through an ethics lesson that spirals out of control.

Following Eleanor’s experiences with her ethics professor ‘soulmate’ Chidi (William Jackson Harper), the posh British socialite next door (Jameela Jamil), all-knowing AI assistant Janet (D’Arcy Carden), and the neighbourhood’s supernatural architect and guardian Michael (Ted Danson, clearly having a great time in the role) is great fun and I can’t wait to see what future episodes have in store for them.

(The Good Place is on Netflix)

Mr Robot – “Runtime Error’/’Kill Process’

mr robot season 3
Copyright: USA/Amazon.

Picking up immediately after the ending of its divisive second season, Mr Robot quickly tackles the criticisms of that season by clearing up much of the confusion over character motivations and filling in gaps in the narrative which were infuriatingly teased but left unexplained throughout 2016’s episodes.

The psychological conspiracy thriller puts the emphasis firmly back on ‘thriller’ with a fast-paced rollercoaster of a season which focuses on a newly-motivated Elliot (Rami Malek) attempting to undo some of the damage his well-intentioned revolution has caused.

This goal puts him in direct conflict with powerful forces that have mysterious motives while his nearest and dearest hide devastating secrets from him.

Meanwhile, the show’s continued exploration of the rise of digital currency, the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of privacy in the digital age makes it as timely as ever.

To call it a return to form would be a bit of an insult to season two, which I quite liked despite its issues – and its emphasis on character and backstory made a great foundation for this season to build on – but these new episodes are astoundingly good.

They’re full of memorable moments, shocking twists and astoundingly cool and clever tricks, and they maintain the show’s signature atmosphere of dread and disorientation.

‘Runtime Error’ follows Elliot and Angela (Portia Doubleday) in real time as he has a bad day at work and she struggles to follow instructions, tracking them in a way that makes the whole episode look like one long uninterrupted shot.

Far from being just a gimmick, this is an impressive and immersive way of building tension during a crucial day in the life of these characters – it’s thrillingly-executed, ambitious and just a hell of a lot of fun, even as the tension keeps relentlessly building over 45 long minutes.

Then ‘Kill Process’ sustains this tension by constantly cutting between several characters as Elliot tries to avert disaster and the FBI closes in on its targets until the suspense is almost unbearable, with a few gags and unexpected moments of slapstick comedy included to give viewers a bit of a breather.

The aftermath of these episodes dominates the rest of the season, as Elliot and Angela struggle to deal with what they’ve played a part in causing and the show flirts with the possibility of introducing sci-fi elements before quickly grounding itself firmly back in reality.

The cast still deliver brilliant performances, the direction is as stylish as ever, the writing is on point, the soundtrack is eclectic and Mac Quayle’s electronic score complements the action perfectly.

Most remarkable of all is that, three seasons in, it’s still very difficult to tell how this show will end, but I’m on board for whatever the future has in store.

(Mr Robot is on Amazon Prime Video)

Legion – “Chapter 7”

legion
Copyright: FX.

Legion is like watching an eight-episode psychedelic fever-dream.

The series sticks the viewer firmly inside the head of David Haller (Dan Stevens), who begins to suspect that the voices and visions he hears and sees, the same voices and visions that have lead to him being sent to a psychiatric hospital, may actually be real.

He might not be insane, but he may be insanely powerful.

David starts a relationship with another patient (Rachel Keller) just before he is caught up in a battle between a sinister government agency who wants to experiment on him and a misfit band of rebellious mutants who want to help him control his powers.

Film and TV are saturated with stories about superheroes these days, but Legion is unique.

It’s bursting with style, creativity, and confidence, flicking between reality, memories, nightmares and something else altogether at such a dizzying pace that it is, at first, a bit difficult to keep track of what’s what.

Thankfully, this is not a show that obfuscates and confuses just for the sake of it.

Things  settle down slightly as David gets a better grasp of his abilities and the plot, which is fairly straightforward when all the visual pyrotechnics and unreliable narration are stripped away, reveals itself.

Each episode has an audacious showstopper of a sequence designed to leave jaws on the floor and minds well and truly boggled, and the main cast all give excellent performances.

It is, quite simply, one of the most impressive shows on TV right now.

(Legion is on DVD, Bluray, and NOW TV)

Doctor Who – “World Enough and Time”/”The Doctor Falls”

doctor who capaldi
Copyright: BBC.

Taking a year off has done the show a world of good, as it returned reinvigorated with new companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) and a fantastic-as-ever performance from Peter Capaldi.

Through Bill, the familiar tropes of the show seemed fresh and exciting again, as the writers managed to find plenty of inventive ways to introduce the Doctor’s new travelling partner to his time machine, his alien features and his complex morality.

I immensely disliked Matt Lucas’ character Nardole when he was first introduced two Christmas specials ago and the news that he would become a regular was met with a loud sigh, but he proved to be a fine addition to the TARDIS team.

He’s a well-written and likeable robot-human thing who is in the unusual position of being the Doctor’s travelling partner, his intellectual equal and, occasionally, his boss.

This season was intended to be a soft reboot, a good jumping-on point for new viewers, like Matt Smith’s first season was, and it does a wonderful job of showing how diverse and ambitious this show can be, enticing new viewers and reminding old ones why they like it so much.

Its first half features a string of great episodes that show Bill struggling to get used to the implausible sights and sounds she’s experiencing with this eccentric, wild-haired old Scottish man.

Even the episodes with plots that sound God-awful on paper (killer puddles, deadly emoji robots, etc) are surprisingly decent, and a few of the rest are the best in recent memory.

Victorian caper ‘Thin Ice’ is a perfect example of what a stand-alone Doctor Who episode should be, with a cool and unusual setting, a mysterious monster, good jokes, and well-performed character drama caused by a conflict between the differing perspectives of the Doctor and his companion, while space-zombie chiller ‘Oxygen’ has an intriguing premise, good twists, and – gasp – actual lasting consequences for the Doctor.

But these episodes, as good as they are, aren’t the ones mentioned at the top of this entry. With ‘World Enough and Time’ and ‘The Doctor Falls’, Stephen Moffat, in his final year as showrunner, has managed to outdo himself.

His tenure has been far from perfect and he’s written some cringe-worthy dreck over the years, but these two episodes show off everything he’s best at: cleverly-constructed out-of-sequence storytelling, impressive quotable speeches that show a keen understanding of the Doctor’s character, and well-devised concepts that are not just ‘scary for kids’ but scary full-stop.

‘World Enough and Time’ starts amusingly enough, with Moffat cramming in a few more self-referential ‘Doctor Who?’ gags while he still can, then it abruptly turns into a nightmare that gets darker and grimmer and bleaker as the minutes tick by before ending on an iconic final shot and a heartbreaking cliffhanger.

‘The Doctor Falls’ is about as cheery as its title suggests, putting the Doctor and Bill in a situation where it seems actually impossible for them to succeed and there’s an inescapable feeling of inevitable death over the whole episode because both writer and viewer know full well that Capaldi’s incarnation of the Doctor is on the way out.

All this doom and gloom is occasionally interrupted by one baddie merrily chewing the scenery and some touching moments from a surprising source.

Capaldi’s time as the Doctor has seemed oddly brief compared to his immediate predecessors, despite having as many full seasons as Tennant and Smith, but it’s great that he’s going out on such a high.

(Doctor Who is on DVD and Bluray)

Better Call Saul – “Chicanery”/”Fall”/”Lantern”

better call saul 3
Copyright: Netflix.

Another year, another stellar season of Saul. After opening with a couple of episodes that seemed like they were intentionally trying to frustrate those who complain that BCS is far too slow, the show ramped up to a long-awaited mid-season showdown between the brothers McGill.

The rest of the season explored the aftermath of that courtroom battle, which saw the first proper manifestation of Jimmy’s ‘Saul Goodman’ persona.

This was also the year that Better Call Saul became more like the Breaking Bad spin-off it was expected to be when it was first announced, with more characters from the original show popping up and playing key roles – the most notable one being Gus Fring.

I sometimes wonder whether this series would work for someone who’s never seen Breaking Bad.

Better Call Saul still does because it manages to skilfully introduce more explicit ties to its predecessor without letting them take over the show and steal the spotlight from Jimmy.

Though Mike’s meetings with Gus and Nacho’s dealings with the Salamancas are gripping and also work as fanservice that doesn’t feel gratuitous, Jimmy’s slow transformation into Saul is still very much the focus.

In “Fall”, Jimmy is finally the amoral asshole he was always going to become, using his persuasive charm to manipulate and deceive one of his clients as the audience watches, stunned at his complete lack of empathy or remorse and finding themselves suddenly starting to hate this lovable wise-guy they’ve followed for three seasons.

This episode and the finale, “Lantern”, are a rough one-two punch that act as a dramatic reminder that, despite its slower, low-key feel, Better Call Saul can be just as shocking, upsetting and devastating as Breaking Bad when it really wants to be.

(Better Call Saul is on Netflix)

Fargo – “Aporia”/”Somebody to Love”

fargo season 3
Copyright: FX.

While it was good to have Fargo back, something just wasn’t clicking at first.

The characters were the sort of motley crew that wouldn’t feel out of place in either of the previous seasons, there was the requisite moment of shocking violence to kick off the plot, and the performances were all top-notch, especially Ewan McGregor playing the dual roles of Emmit and Ray Stussy.

During the slow early episodes, there was a well-executed episode-long diversion to another city that was like a short story tangentially-related to the tale the rest of the season was telling, which seemed like the sort of cheeky, vaguely-experimental creative decision I’d be going gaga over in previous years.

But not this year. I was appreciative but distant, not fully engaged in the story this time around for reasons I couldn’t explain.

Then, around the half-way mark, something changed. The stakes were suddenly raised, dots were joined, ill-thought-out actions were having horrible consequences and I suddenly found myself caring immensely about characters I had previously thought of as quirky but fairly flat.

At the same time, the theme of the season was being hammered home with little-to-no subtlety but at least now I had a better understanding of what the show was trying to say, and it was saying it through the snaggle-toothed, bleeding-gummed mouth of the villainous V.M. Varga.

David Thewlis’ deliciously disgusting scene-stealing performance as this human ooze is a sight to behold.

His larger-than-life loan shark rambles about irrelevant trivia to sound clever and disarm his victims before telling lies so effortlessly that they became accepted truth through the sheer conviction of his slimy delivery.

Truth is the theme of the season, as the show confronts the lie it inherited from the film it’s based on which has appeared at the start of every single episode: “This is a true story.”

It examines how easily the truth can be distorted,  moulded and transfigured for the malicious ends of the powerful and the greedy (no real-world subtext here, no sir), and how, sometimes, the truth is knowingly disregarded and deemed unnecessary when the lie is more convenient.

This analysis is wrapped in the riotously-entertaining second half of the season which features more of those cheeky, vaguely-experimental creative decisions that I normally go gaga for – and this time I did.

Back on the top TV list you go, Fargo.

(Fargo is on DVD, Bluray, and Netflix)

Honourable mentions: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events – “The Miserable Mill” (both parts), Blue Planet 2 – “The Deep”, Marvel’s The Defenders – “Royal Dragon”, Game of Thrones – “The Spoils of War”, Bojack Horseman – “Thoughts and Prayers”, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – “Josh’s Ex-Girlfriend is Crazy.”
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Inevitable Doctor Who blog post

doctor-who deep breath

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month and have somehow avoided the massive publicity blitz that the BBC has carried out over recent months (including organising a world tour, ubiquitous advertising on BBC One (even during half-time at the World Cup final), several articles about the show appearing in every major newspaper and online publication, choosing to air the première in cinemas nationally, and putting Peter Capaldi’s face on as many billboards and magazine covers as humanly possible), you’ll probably know that Doctor Who is back.

It’s no surprise that the BBC is promoting the hell out of it, it’s one of the corporation’s biggest cash cows (rivalled only by Sherlock), and after the 50th anniversary special it’s more popular than ever.

In much of the pre-première hype, the writers and the cast kept emphasising how ‘mysterious’ and ‘dark’ the new guy was, and how different he’d be, and how jarring this different Doctor would be, both to his companion Clara and to the viewers at home.

The promotional images emphasised this change to a new moody, brooding Doctor. Instead of the cheeky-chappie face and mischievous grin of Matt Smith, there’s an angry, bushy-eyebrowed Scotsman glaring at you. Instead of a bright purple jacket and goofy bowtie, he’s wearing a plain waistcoat and trousers, all black.

In the trailers, he wonders whether he’s a good man and contemplates his past mistakes, while Clara looks on confused and wonders if she even knows who he is any more.

The message is clear: This is going to be very, very different.

And, for much of the super-long episode, which was even longer than last year’s Day of the Doctor anniversary special, it was quite different to anything from Matt Smith’s years.

The bombastic music was toned down to a bare minimum. The colour scheme was dark and washed out. The tone is noticeably different. The 79-minute running time allowed many scenes to be much longer than they would normally be, giving the episode a slow, leisurely pace. There was a general lack of of scenes featuring the Doctor running around frantically and shouting expository technobabble while the music loudly drowns out his dialogue that normally fill an episode of Doctor Who. Instead, there were plenty of long, quiet conversations with the music little more than a whisper.

Many of these dialogue-heavy scenes were spent giving Clara Oswald some much-needed character. When she was introduced last year, Clara was regarded by the Doctor, and the audience, as more of a mystery than a person. He didn’t know who she was and what she was like, so neither did we, and after he did figure out who she was, he was then preoccupied with other matters, like revisiting the Time War (Day of the Doctor) and fighting a centuries-long battle on a distant planet to keep Gallifrey safe (Time of the Doctor), so Clara got sidelined and, despite Jenna Coleman’s best efforts, was still quite boring and bland.

Here, she finally gets some personality. Struggling to cope with the Doctor’s new face, new personality and new, well, everything, she panics and complains and, in her chats with Madame Vastra and the new Doctor, is established as a bit of a passive-aggressive control freak with a fierce inner strength. The scenes with her and the Doctor arguing with each other are highlights of the episode, as is the scene where the Doctor talks to a homeless man about his new face, which is where we get our first real impression of what the new Doctor will be like.

Continue reading “Inevitable Doctor Who blog post”

The Day of the Doctor/An Adventure in Space and Time

doctor who 50th

While waiting for the 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who to begin last Saturday, I did not envy Stephen Moffat. He had a near-impossible task to complete. He had to write an episode that would pay tribute to the show’s past without turning into a boring retrospective, lay down the foundations for the next decade or so of Doctor Who, introduce and establish a new, previously-unknown incarnation of the Doctor, re-introduce an old fan-favourite Doctor, continue the storyline of the current Doctor, quickly and efficiently mix all 3 together through some time-travel trickery, show the much-discussed-but-never-seen Time War even though surely no budget in the universe could do it justice, throw in a few surprises and twists and give Clara something to do. In just over 70 minutes. Oh, and, ideally, he should make all this fairly easy to follow for people who’ve never seen the show before – due to all the hype and the promotion the 50th anniversary received, there was bound to be a potentially-huge new audience tuning in.

Amazingly, he seems to have succeeded. 10 million people tuned into the UK broadcast of the special, and a quick surveying of the online reaction reveals near-universal praise for the episode. This is no easy feat – Who fans on the Internet can be notoriously difficult to please, and they’re usually complaining about how the show’s gone downhill since Moffat took over/Tennant left/Eccleston left/it was resurrected in 2005/Tom Baker left (delete as appropriate).

There were nonetheless a few complaints that I noticed, just the usual ‘this is utter nonsense’, ‘this is too complicated, I have no idea what’s happening’, etc. To the latter, I call bullshit. Unless you were staring at your phone for the first 20 minutes, or talking over everything, I fail to see how you could be lost. My mum, who knows the general gist of the show, tuned in to see what all the fuss was about, and even she seemed to get what was going on. The first few minutes can be a little confusing, due to the episode switching between three different storylines with three different Doctors in three different time periods, but a clever bit of visual shorthand – a fez and a time portal – makes it clear where in the episode’s narrative the characters are.

This is the part where I would normally put a brief plot summary, but since Doctor Who‘s plots often involve a big amount of time travel and messing with the past to change the future – in this episode especially – they’re a right pain in the arse to sum up in text, and they end up sounding far more complicated and convoluted than they appear when we’re actually watching the story unfold.

So let’s talk about John Hurt instead. John Hurt’s in this! John Hurt! He’s playing the ‘don’t call me the Doctor’ Doctor, who’s helping the Time Lords fight a seemingly-endless battle against Daleks that somehow gained access to time-travel tech. He steals the most powerful weapon in the universe, The Moment, a weapon that can go through space and time and lay waste to entire civilisations, planning to destroy both Daleks and Time Lords to end the horrible war. The weapon also has a conscience, so it can judge him and punish him for choosing to use it. This conscience takes the form of Billie Piper as super-powerful Bad Wolf Rose*, who urges the not-Doctor to see what his future selves are like, and what effect his use of the weapon would have, before he goes through with his big decision.

Continue reading “The Day of the Doctor/An Adventure in Space and Time”

Doctor Who: A catch-up guide PART ONE

doctors

With less than a month to go until Doctor Who‘s big 50th Anniversary Special, the advertising and build-up to the big day has really kicked off. There was that ’50 years’ trailer which was shown after Atlantis a week ago, with another trailer – this one with footage of the special – and a rumoured mini-episode still to come.

All of this extra attention on the show could attract new fans who, overwhelmed with episodes, may be unsure of where to start watching, or even understand what it’s about. Well, basically it’s a sci-fi show about a time-travelling alien, and each episode could be set in any time, place or genre. You could start with the Ninth Doctor’s first episode, ‘Rose’, and go from there, but be prepared for some very inconsistent quality (in the first series there’s a really good World War 2 two-parter, but there’s also farting aliens. So…). Or you could start slightly later with the Eleventh Doctor’s first episode, ‘The Eleventh Hour’. You would catch up faster, and there’s a lot of good episodes there, but there’s also a long story arc involving one character which isn’t quite as good as it could have been.

There we go, done. Boom, sorted. Off you go.Have fun!

The rest of this blog post is for those who may have once been fans but gave up watching, having had enough of the increasingly, and rather unnecessarily, complicated storylines that made up much of Series 6. For those who watched the finale, in which all of time happened at once, with Winston Churchill riding on a mammoth, the leader of the Silence being quickly defeated somehow and River Song killing/marrying the doctor at the same time, though he’d actually faked his death, despite repeatedly being told that he really, actually, honestly, seriously was going to die, really this time, and oh for God’s sake.

After watching that, I can’t really blame people for throwing their hands up in the air and going ‘I give up! I quit! Fuck this show, no more!’ But it’s gotten better, honest. The overarching storyline has gotten simpler and, in Doctor Who logic, actually makes some sense. None of the episodes (though, of course, this is very subjective), have been awful, and a few come close to being classics. A lot of them have been fun, standalone adventures, instead of head-hurting, nonsensical, overstuffed crap like ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’*. And if you have been away from the show for a while and start watching the special, you might be a little confused.

*(For any Doctor Who newbies still reading this, yes, there really was an episode called ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’. And no, no they didn’t kill Hitler. I know, what a waste. And yes, that Winston Churchill on a mammoth thing really does happen, but don’t let that put you off. Also, why are you still reading this? There’s spoilers everywhere, go! Go!)

So, here’s a quick, spoiler-free summary of every episode in series seven. In all, there’s only about 5 or 6 episodes that you absolutely should watch. They aren’t necessarily the best ones, but they are the most story-heavy. The rest of the series is also a rather good, a fun mix of adventure, horror, noir, Victorian silliness and dinosaurs.

I’ll try to keep this short, but no promises, alright?

Continue reading “Doctor Who: A catch-up guide PART ONE”

Doctor Who – A catch-up guide PART TWO

If you’re interested in the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who but haven’t watched the show for a couple of years and are thinking of jumping back in before the special airs on November 23rd, this is the guide for you. Here’s a mostly-spoiler-free summary of each episode of series seven, with the story-crucial MUST WATCH episodes clearly marked, and the fun standalone episodes briefly reviewed so you can pick and choose which ones to watch depending on whether they sound good to you.

Part one of the guide is HERE.

THE SNOWMEN – MUST WATCH

snowmen

The Doctor has become a miserable recluse after the events of ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’, staying above the clouds over Victorian London. Vastra, Jenny and Strax keep those who want to meet him at bay, but one girl gets through (by saying something which is supposed to seem clever, but is really massively coincidental). The girl is troubled by something lurking in a frozen pond and asks the Doctor for help. The Doctor recognises her voice, but can’t quite place where it’s from. Together, they fight baddies Sir Ian McKellen and Richard E. Grant in a fun Christmas Special.

THE BELLS OF SAINT JOHN – MUST WATCH

st john

The Doctor is jolted into action when the phone on the TARDIS rings. Clara is on the other end of the line, a girl who looks just like the Clara in Victorian London, and sounds like the soufflé girl in ‘Asylum of the Daleks’. But that’s impossible, isn’t it? Who is this Impossible Girl? Meanwhile, something weird is in the Wi-Fi, and the Doctor has to sort it out. Back to being happy and bouncy, rather than glum and Scrooge-y, he indulges his inner action hero to save the day yet again.

Continue reading “Doctor Who – A catch-up guide PART TWO”