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”.
Advertisements

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”

2015’s Top TV: FARGO Season Two

(Image ©FX)

One of the biggest surprises of 2014 was that this seemingly-superfluous series based on a film from two decades ago was actually very, very good.

Under the guidance of showrunner Noah Hawley, the show impressively maintained the best qualities of the Oscar-winning film that shared its name, which had a memorable mixture of shocking violence, quirky mobsters, endearing characters, funny accents, ordinary people ending up in bad situations due to even worse decisions, and a light touch of the absurd and the mythical.

After being hailed with praise, the show returned with increased confidence and it was great fun to watch.

This season went back in time to explore a case Molly Solverson’s dad Lou worked on in 1979. The case was briefly discussed in season one and it sounded pretty horrific.

As the characters get into deeper trouble, costly mistakes are made, the body count begins to rise and Old Lou’s words rattle round our heads, there’s an increasingly strong feeling of inevitable doom, that the characters are unknowingly heading towards a place where Something Terrible is going to happen and any attempts to avoid what’s coming will fail miserably.

The second season of Fargo is a more complicated affair than its predecessor, doubling the amount of main characters, widening its scope, including more political and historical commentary and playfully experimenting with the way it tells its ‘true’ story.

Unlike that other critically-acclaimed miniseries that returned for a second season last year, it manages to juggle many things – more characters, more locations, more intertwining storylines, a new look and tone which is drastically different to the previous season but still keeps what people liked about the show in the first place, and a clear but subtle opinion on the state of the nation at the time – without falling flat on its face and becoming an unlikeable, overwrought mess.

Setting all of this up does make the first three episodes a bit slow, aside from a messy confrontation at a diner that sets the events of the season into motion. They lay the groundwork for even messier outbreaks of violence later on with plenty of exceptionally well-written conversations and typically-quirky character moments.

Then the pace builds, the stakes rise and the tension often becomes unbearable as the season races towards a grisly climax in Sioux Falls. The final episode is a long exhalation of breath, a calm epilogue which wraps up loose ends, mops up the blood and examines how the survivors are coping with what they’ve experienced.

The show has an exceptional cast and even the minor characters get a memorable scene in their limited screen time. Kirsten Dunst is especially good as highly-strung hairdresser Peggy Blomquist. She and her dopey, long-suffering husband Ed (Jesse Plemons) get caught in the middle of a confrontation between the mob and a local crime family that could escalate into all-out war.

To show this conflict, the season tries out new televisual tricks in the same gleeful manner of a child that just got a lot of new toys for Christmas, jumping into black and white, messing with the aspect ratio, changing the framing device of the narrative for an episode, inserting flashbacks without warning, doing a few inventive montages, adding in a freeze-frame or two and using a lot of split-screen.

But every visual flourish has clearly been carefully thought out and it rarely feels indulgent. It’s oddly exciting. You never really know quite what sort of rabbit the show’s gonna pull out of its hat next, since it delights in subverting expectations and trying new things, and this applies to the storytelling as well as the show’s beautiful visual style.

It’s also complemented by an eclectic soundtrack of period-appropriate ’70s music and new versions of songs from other Coen brothers films.

Though it would be best to watch the show in order, and even watch the film, if you have time,  before the show, it’s not at all necessary. Many of the references to the film in season one and references to season one in season two won’t affect your enjoyment of the show and most of them are fairly minor.

Well, apart from one scene at the end of the most recent season where the writers bend over backwards to nonsensically link the fate of one character to another from season one, which was a rare mis-step for the show. But don’t let that put you off.

Since Hannibal has sadly had its last meal and that other miniseries that was on my 2014 Best Of list has nosedived in quality, Fargo has become my favourite show on TV… and it’s taking a year off. Sigh. At least it gives you lot plenty of time to catch up!

Yes, sadly, season three won’t be on our screens until 2017. But will it be worth the wait?

Oh, you betcha.

2015’s Top TV: 3 BBC Book Adaptations

(Image ©BBC)

In 2015 the BBC ambitiously attempted adaptations of three very different books: a complex historical drama, a magical fantasy epic and a classic murder mystery, and they became three of my favourite dramas of last year.

Hilary Mantel’s big bestsellers Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies were carefully squeezed into 6 hour-long episodes of high-class conspiracy, courtly intrigue, royal marriage woes and dimly-lit conversations. Anchored by an incredible performance by Mark Rylance as  the quietly cunning Thomas Cromwell, with good support from Damian Lewis’ unusually svelte Henry VIII and Clare Foy as his unfortunate wife Anne Boleyn, the series was an award-winning success.

My historical knowledge of the period isn’t the best, which at first led to a bit of confusion about who was who and why they were important, and a lot of me desperately trying to remember high-school history lessons about Henry VIII. However, after the first couple of episodes it was easy to sink into the story. Lack of historical knowledge was actually helpful as it meant that the twists and turns of the plot, which mostly unfold through quiet dialogue and secret plans slowly being unveiled, came as a complete surprise.

Later in the year was a series based on Susanna Clarke’s alternate-universe Victorian drama with magicians Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. This doorstopper of a book, set around the Napoleonic wars, is one of the most highly-praised fantasy novels of the 21st century and the adaptation looked promising, but I had some reservations when I saw that it was being adapted by Peter Harness, whose last writing credit was an episode of Doctor Who where the Moon turns out to be an egg with a monster inside and everyone worries about it hatching but when it does hatch the monster immediately craps out another moon to replace it and flies away.

Seriously. How did that get past the first draft?

So it was with some relief and quite a lot of surprise that JS&MN became one of my favourite shows of the year, expertly mixing gothic otherworldly locations, spectacular special effects and wry humour into a Victorian setting.

Eddie Marsan was great as the sensible and stubborn Mr Norrell but the show was stolen by Bertie Carvel as Norrell’s polar opposite, the lovable eccentric Jonathan Strange who becomes fascinated by the dark, maddening power of forbidden magic which hasn’t been practiced in England for many years.

The two have great chemistry together which makes it easy to care about their bumpy, slightly reluctant partnership. There’s plenty of the dark, the creepy and the – ahem – Strange, nicely balanced with a fair amount of silliness.

Perhaps the embodiment of this silly/creepy balance is Marc Warren’s performance as The Gentleman, the mysterious Big Bad of the series that deals with the souls of the dead and shows up to menace and entrap those who summon him. He also happens to be a fairy with big white eyebrows wearing a ridiculous wig.

I loved the world and characters that the show brought to life and will be getting the book to experience more of it, though because of Vincent Franklin’s slightly hammy turn as Drawlight I think his yell of ‘MISTER NORRRRRRRRREELLLL’ will echo round my skull whenever I read Norrell’s name.

To close out the year, there was a three-part adaptation of the most popular murder mystery of all time, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, because everyone loves a nice bit of multiple homicide at Christmastime.

The book was lingering on a bookshelf somewhere in my room, unloved and unread like many of my ‘buy-now, get-around-to-it-eventually’ books that I seem to compulsively collect.

So when the poor unfortunate souls that get invited to a remote island for the world’s worst dinner party start dropping like flies, I had no clue whodunnit, my guess changed several times (always hopelessly wrong) and I was gripped til the very end.

The whole thing is soaked in an oppressive gloomy atmosphere, with plenty of overcast skies, grey scenery, an entertainingly over-the-top use of sinister strings in the soundtrack –  especially during the voyage to the Cornish Island of Death and Misery –  and lots of of quiet shots of the characters looking suspicious. When they arrive at the extravagant mansion where they’ll spend their final nights, they are greeted by a butler who is so clearly and hilariously untrustworthy he might as well be wearing a sign saying ‘You’re All Doomed’.

It’s not subtle, quite the opposite, but it’s enjoyably pulpy and ominous. Most of the ten corpses-in-waiting are wonderfully obnoxious and watching them as they clash, become increasingly paranoid and reveal how loathsome they really are is fun and tense.

and then there were none
DOOOOOOOMED.

It’s fair to say then that the Beeb has proved to be quite adept at adapting novels and abridging chunky bestsellers, turning them into brilliant, engaging television. Now, fresh off the success and acclaim of these three series, they’re attempting to trim one of the most intimidatingly-huge and dauntingly-dense novels of all time, War and Peace, into 6 hours.

Well… good luck with that.

It’s… ALIVE!

Hello? Hello?

Goodness, look at how dusty this place is. Sorry I’ve been gone so long since my last post in *checks* February last year? Whoops…

My new year’s resolution was to do a bit of cyber-necromancy and bring this blog back to life with new posts and a shiny new look. So, over the next few weeks and continuing into February and March (where, fingers crossed, it won’t be accidentally abandoned again) I’ll be adding a few posts about my favourite books and TV shows of last year.

Last time I did a ‘Top TV’ thing every show was discussed in the same post, but this year I’m splitting a few of the shows off the list into their own seperate entries because I’ve been away too long and I’ve got too many thoughts to fit onto one post without it becoming a never-ending scroll that would break mouse wheels and send anyone that dared read it mad with frustration.

So look for the first ‘2015’s Top TV’ entry in the next few days. The books one will be along soon too, in the same format as last year.

Thanks for reading!

Daniel

(Image © Sales and Marketing Solutions.)

2014’s Top TV

There was a lot of good TV on in 2014. There are more quality dramas and comedies on at the moment than ever before. But I am just one man. I do not have the time or the patience to watch everything.

Just like in 2013, there are still plenty of acclaimed shows that I haven’t seen or am still catching up on (for example, I finished watching True Detective just a few hours ago so that I could fit it on this list).

Nevertheless, here, in no particular order, are the best episodes of TV in 2014.

That I’ve seen.

Which is quite a narrow selection, really, but there we are.

HANNIBAL – KAISEKI/MIZUMONO

hannibal 2

Hannibal’s second season is incredible.

It’s difficult to pick out favourite episodes, partly because they’re all so good, and partly because of the fact that the episodes being named after courses in a Japanese meal makes it difficult to remember what happened in which one. They all start to blend together into a nightmarish haze, punctuated by grotesque crime scenes, tense conversations, shocking moments that I dare not spoil, and the occasional bit of dark, dark humour.

Hmm, “Takiawase” – is that the one with the corpse in a horse? No, wait, that’s “Su-zakana”. Or is that the one with a corpse in a tree? Or the one with Will on trial? Or the one where a man cuts off bits of his own face? Oh, forget it, I’ll just put the first and last episode of the season on this list, because they, and all the episodes in between, are excellent.

I praised the first season in a lengthy gush of words that could be summed up as ‘OHMYGOD THIS IS SO GOOD WHY AREN’T YOU WATCHING IT?’, but I didn’t expect that it could get so much better.

The show seemed to be more confident this season, and it showed in every area. The storytelling was perfectly paced and confidently done, the case-of-the-week stories never felt like filler, were often used to highlight themes that the main story arc was exploring, and featured some of the weirdest murder victims on the show yet, which is really saying something (see above – corpse in a horse. Corpse. In. A. Horse.).

It seemed like the writers were gleefully pushing the envelope as far as it could possibly go, and in doing so pointing out the hypocrisy of the NBC censors, who stop them from showing any naked bums but do allow some of the grossest images that have ever aired on American network television.

The beautifully stylish, surreal look of the show was turned up to 11 and the musical score was more adventurous and strange than ever before.

There were plenty of moments where the bombastic sound design and the horrific visuals worked together horribly well and actually made me turn away from the screen and mute the sound, which is a rare feat, and these weren’t always because of the disturbing deaths. The show could cause a similar reaction without a single drop of blood being spilt, such as when a repressed memory came to light or during an unconvential therapy session.

Oh, and the finale. The finale deserves special mention.

Last year I wrote, in a breathless and hyperactive stream-of-consciousness way that seemed like a good idea at the time but in hindsight looks a bit amateurish, about the massively-distressing but ultimately inevitable climax that Breaking Bad reached in two episodes of its final season, which provoked a visceral reaction from me that I’d never had to any episode of TV before.

Now, less than a year later, I had a similar reaction again to a similarly devastating and similarly inevitable climax where everything goes horribly for our heroes. It’s impressive for a show to provoke that reaction at all, but to do it in less than half the time than Breaking Bad did is really something.

It’s bloody good, is basically what I’m saying here. It’s bloody. And good.

Unless you’re squeamish. Then maybe give it a miss.

TRUE DETECTIVE – WHO GOES THERE

true-detective

Every media publication in the universe has gone on at length about this bloomin’ show and how incredibly good it is and how it’s some of the best television in years and how brilliant the performances are and how you have to drop whatever you’re holding – food, paperwork, babies – and watch it immediately.

From all the hype, I was braced for a letdown. But the critics were right. True Detective is indeed brilliant.

It’s a bit of a slow burn at first but it’s never boring and always thoroughly engaging. This is mainly due to Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, who both give tremendous performances as Rust and Marty.

Rust is, to put it mildly, a bit of a pessimist, rambling on about the futility of life and the darkness inherent in all humans, much to the annoyance of his colleague. McConaughey gets plenty of great material to dig his teeth into, and he’s amazing. It’s easy to get transfixed and hang on his every word. His performance threatens to steal not just the scene, but the entire show.

As a character, Marty seems fairly ordinary by comparison. He’s an all-American family man who loves his kids and is devoted to his job. But Harrelson gets plenty of chances to shine, too, as the case which he and Rust investigate progresses and the cracks in his perfect life begin to show.

There’s murder afoot in mid-90’s Louisiana, with possible links to the occult, but it’s not our main concern. The investigation is more of an excuse to spend time with these two characters, to learn more about them and see how they change.

We see them in the present, recounting the details of the case to their colleagues, while flashbacks show how it all played out. Past Rust is stern and sober, while Present Rust is a haggard alcoholic who looks like he’s on death’s door. Past Marty is happily married, while Present Marty isn’t wearing a wedding ring. Finding out what happened to them is the show’s real hook.

True Detective has the feel of an eight-hour movie rather than a TV show, partly because of the two award-winning movie stars that headline it, partly because the whole thing’s directed and written by the same two people, and partly because of how it looks.

Nothing looks like a set, every location seems real and lived-in. From the wide, sweeping shots of Louisianan marshland to the close-up, moodily-lit interiors full of dust, smoke and haze, the show is dripping with atmosphere. Almost everywhere is decayed and old, faded, rusted and dim. The place is as much of a character as the actual characters.

‘Who Goes There’ is where the show’s slow-burn storytelling explodes, ending in an intense, unbroken six-minute shot following Past Rust as he tries to salvage an undercover operation gone wrong and escape alive. Compared to the leisurely pace of the previous episodes, it’s a jolt of adrenaline that makes you fear for Rust’s safety despite knowing that he’s still alive in the present.

It’s a sequence I watched over and over, each time marvelling at how on earth it was done. The amount of effort and co-ordination and perfect timing that must have been needed to get it right is just mind-boggling. The fact that the next episode is just as good without resorting to anything as flashy is also impressive.

Oh look, I’m rambling again. Safe to say, it’s worth a watch.

And now for something completely different.

Continue reading “2014’s Top TV”