Season Reviews, The Pentaverate, TV

THE PENTAVERATE is a kind but comically calamitous relic of a bygone age (TV Review)

The funniest thing about The Pentaverate is the timing of its arrival for Netflix, given how under the kosh they currently are in terms of value for money.

Recent reports have seen Netflix’s stock value plummet following news that they have lost a considerable subscriber base as the ‘streaming wars’ heat up with a consolidated Disney and Amazon, a critically rising Apple, and a looming WarnerMedia on the horizon. All media analysis points to one conclusion – Netflix might still be top dog but they can no longer rest on their laurels. Content is not simply enough any longer. Their strategy of throwing as much as they can at the streaming wall and seeing what sticks is not generating them dozens of Stranger Things’ or Bridgerton’s. What they’re ending with up too often is projects like The Pentaverate.

No one is likely to dispute that Mike Myers is funny or certainly has been funny. Wayne’s World has aged well and is now considered by many as a cult comedy classic of the early 90s. Austin Powers, while broader, albeit just as hit and miss, landed squarely inside the ‘Cool Britannia’ fondness for the 1960s that came to bear in the late 1990s, fondly lampooning the James Bond series and 60s cultural norms with great success. Myers is a one-trick pony in many ways but you know what you’ll get – cheeky charm, irreverent asides, teenage boy scatological set pieces and gurning, cod-Spitting Image caricature. You’ll either go in for that or you won’t and The Pentaverate is entirely more of the same.

The difference is that in the age of Netflix, of streaming, Myers’ repertoire of jokes is rapidly wearing thin.

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Season Reviews, Star Trek: Picard, TV

STAR TREK: PICARD (Season 2) is a frustrating, contrived wallow in nostalgia

If ever proof were needed that the writers and producers of modern Star Trek study what audiences think and feel about their shows, then Star Trek: Picard’s second season is most assuredly it.

The first season was a defiant aberration even in the context of Star Trek’s modernisation. Ostensibly a character study, the first Star Trek series directly focused on a popular icon from the broader franchise, Picard was deliberate in just how determinedly it refused to play to the gallery of Star Trek expectations. We only saw Starfleet and the Federation in passing and they were reconceptualised, in the wake of the Trump Administration, as at best an insular, ignorant organisation driven by paranoia, at worst an openly corrupt government. There was no glistening starship our characters travelled on. No exploring new worlds.

This made sense, in broad strokes, given what Picard was designed to explore. Sir Patrick Stewart agreed only to return for a deconstruction of his legendary Enterprise Captain; aged, lost at the end of a century he no longer recognises, haunted by his inability to save a population formerly made up of ideological enemies from a natural catastrophe. Surrounding him with newly invented characters, placing him far from the world of Starfleet he was so closely associated with, the first season of Picard worked to take Jean-Luc on a journey to rediscover the spirit he had lost. A dark series, it dared to suggest the 24th century future fans had imagined after Star Trek: Nemesis was quite different from what would have been expected.

Which, in part, is why Season 2 immediately reverses track. Star Trek: Picard gives in to audience expectation, maybe even pressure, to try and tap not just a 1990s but also 1980s nostalgia for the franchise. It largely fails at both.

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Chivalry, Season Reviews, TV

CHIVALRY squanders the chance to decrypt misogyny & abuse in the entertainment landscape (TV Review)

#MeToo changed everything, certainly in terms of entertainment. Chivalry ostensibly has been designed to explore a landscape that was inch by inch evolving past ingrained sexism and exploitation but the hashtagged movement shoved over an enormous cliff.

It was a reckoning for the entertainment world a long time coming. Rocked in Britain at least by the even more ghoulish Operation Yewtree at the start of the decade, as long-standing national treasures were steadily outed as systemic child sex abusers following the horror of Jimmy Savile (which Chivalry co-star Steve Coogan will soon explore in The Reckoning, playing the monster himself), it was #MeToo that went global following the exposure of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein as a rapist and sex abuser of aspiring, and successful, actresses across decades. The floodgates opened.

Sarah Solemani, the co-star and writer opposite Coogan of Chivalry, has herself described instances where she too was objectified and potentially exploited by men in power (one anecdote recalls an unnamed fifty something director asking her youthful self to strip at a dinner to prove she was happy with on screen nudity), so she writes and portrays up and coming arthouse director Bobby from a position of understanding. She’s a woman in the entertainment industry – she’s been there. Which is why what Chivalry becomes across these six episodes is rather bizarre, given how it starts from a position of exciting, fresh and incisive comedy potential, and completely squanders it.

In short, Chivalry is two shows. The first is the one it promises to be. The second is the very cliche it has presumably been designed to deconstruct.

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Essays, TV

We Are Like the Dreamers: Experiencing TWIN PEAKS

“The locus of the human mystery is perception of this world. From it proceeds every thought, every art”. So said Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize winning author, and while she isn’t referencing Twin Peaks, her medication on perception is key to the experience of watching this unique, mind-bending series.

Many people I know have a long association with Twin Peaks to a degree I never have. They watched it either in subsequent decades since it premiered in 1990 or even perhaps at the time on ABC latterly BBC2 in the U.K., where it ran as a two season cult hit that though failing to be renewed, latched onto the public and cultural consciousness and never quite let go. I was just seven years old when David Lynch & Mark Frost’s series arrived, too young to step into the Black Lodge as a viewer but old enough to feel its existence somehow.

During the 1990s, Twin Peaks became an American import that was discussed in hushed tones as a modern classic, something dark, horrific and deeply strange, almost akin to the boom in schlock horror of the period where VHS tapes were king and satellite broadcasts were just penetrating the mainstream. It was not long afterward, around 1995, that I discovered The X-Files—still a lifelong passion—without truly understanding as a teenager the pervasive effect FBI Agent Dale Cooper’s investigation into the death of teenager Laura Palmer had on the show I rapidly fell in love with.

Years went by. Decades. I watched so many series recognised as American classics, beyond my penchant for science-fiction. Breaking Bad. The Sopranos. Mad Men. The list went on. Twin Peaks lurked, however, at the back of my mind, continuing to latch on. References abounded, references I didn’t get. And when the series came back in 2017 for The Return, a long gestated third season, I missed the boat. Was I afraid of it? Was it just too legendary, too impenetrable? Was I terrified it wouldn’t match the expectations?

Last year, the time came, during the second Covid-19 lockdown. It was time to walk with fire. It was time to order some cherry pie. It was time to let the past dictate the future.

Continue reading “We Are Like the Dreamers: Experiencing TWIN PEAKS”
Season Reviews, TV

THE FEAR INDEX is a dry, melodramatic trudge through capitalist cliches

The Fear Index suffers from a difficult to resolve problem, namely: how do you make a show about arrogant, super rich people and it be in any way relatable to the audience?

Robert Harris is one of my favourite novelists of all time. Most of his works have been adapted for the big or small screen and continue to be – most recently Netflix’s Munich: The Edge of War (suffix added to distinguish it from the Steven Spielberg thriller, most likely). Yet I’m hard pressed to remember an adaptation of his work that matched the compressed thrills inherent in the way Harris tells his stories. Many of the screen versions of his books are austere and impersonal, not to mention staid.

I’ll say this for The Fear Index – it is never staid. Across four episodes telling the story of Dr. Alex Hoffman, a genius hedge fund billionaire in Geneva who, following an attack in his home, begins to uncover a strange conspiracy against him which leads increasingly back to himself, The Fear Index uses a contained, just over 24 hour time frame to its advantage in throwing Hoffman into a series of increasingly ridiculous situations that stretch credulity.

This isn’t exactly praise but while The Fear Index is not really any good, it is at least never entirely dull.

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Season Reviews, TV

THIS IS GOING TO HURT makes you feel the pain, humour and tragedy of modern British healthcare

Have we reached the point yet where we can collectively agree that the ‘clap for the NHS’ phenomenon during the height of the Covid pandemic was a tokenistic gesture at best? This Is Going to Hurt really brings home how unintentionally insulting our efforts were.

Not that Adam Kay’s adaptation of his best-selling memoir of the same name directly covers these events, or even references Covid, but across seven episodes it rather brilliantly brings home the stark reality of just what the National Health Service does on a daily basis. To say doctors, nurses, clinical staff and more go above and beyond is an incredible understatement. Kay’s series presents them, undoubtedly accurately, as modern heroes fighting against a system driving them into the ground.

One might suspect the resulting series would be a highly depressing journey through the darkest corners of hospital life but This Is Going to Hurt is no bleak episode of Casualty or existential hour of Holby City. Kay’s show manages to accomplish what his memoir did in balancing the melancholic and downright despairing with the deeply hilarious. His series can veer from razor sharp wit all the way to tragic, shocking consequences in a heartbeat, and does so without ever missing a step.

It is, quite simply, one of the finest depictions of the NHS we have perhaps ever seen on screen.

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Season Reviews, TV

THE BOOK OF BOBA FETT should have stayed in the Sarlacc Pit

Set to go down in television history as one of the most bizarre misfires in the streaming era, The Book of Boba Fett is both simultaneously absolutely fascinating and profoundly dull.

That is quite some trick from the creative forces within the Disney Star Wars family, who since LucasFilm was bought out in 2012 and the biggest science-fiction franchise in history was revived as one of the dominant multimedia IP’s, have presided over a distinctly mixed bag of content. For every The Force Awakens, you end up with what previously might have been termed a Rise of Skywalker, and from now on could well be designated as a Book of Boba Fett.

Quite how they managed to so staggeringly get this wrong is perhaps the biggest mystery about the whole project. It was steered by Jon Favreau, the primary mastermind behind The Mandalorian which, despite the flaws that show does have, is probably outside of The Last Jedi the most broadly critically acclaimed piece of modern Star Wars that we’ve seen produced, which has managed to seep into popular geek culture relatively swiftly. Star Wars stalwarts such as Dave Filoni are involved. Seasoned directors such as Robert Rodriguez. All of the creative building blocks are in place.

This is without even mentioning that the show is about Boba Fett. Is there, outside of Darth Vader, a masked character in pop culture history, certainly in the Star Wars universe, who has been so mythologised in the last 40+ years? So how, exactly, has his first significant dramatic storyline been so utterly, completely botched?

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Star Trek: Lower Decks, TV, Writing

TV Review: STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS (Season 2)

Out of every modern Star Trek series currently on air, Lower Decks bounced into its second season with the brightest springing step.

While not every Star Trek fan of old finds Lower Decks their cup of Earl Grey, amongst fans who do enjoy it, and indeed critics, Mike McMahan’s animated comedy clicked almost right away. Taking the precepts of Star Trek animation and vibrantly updating them with a beautifully drawn, Seth McFarlane-esque sheen, Lower Decks avoided the trap initial commentators feared: that it would be funny at the expense of Star Trek. This was not the case even from Second Contact, the opening episode, which established the core concept of a series revolving around the lowly crew members on the second rate Starfleet vessel, the U.S.S. Cerritos. Immediately, Lower Decks was an affectionate lampoon.

One of the key reasons Lower Decks worked, by and large, straight away, was the feeling that it was written and animated by people who truly loved and crucially understood Star Trek as an idea. McMahan, parlaying the TNG S8 comedy Twitter account stylistically into the series, saw an opening for spoof in the cheesy 1980s utopian formalism of The Next Generation and leaned into mockery that played, almost entirely, with the audience’s knowledge and awareness of the tropes it was spoofing, be it Captain’s Logs, holodecks programs or the crew dynamics on the ship. Lower Decks was never truly a series for franchise newcomers, it was always an affectionate love letter to Star Trek fans of the 1990s, and was unashamed of being so.

Season 2, therefore, works simply to build on what the first season established. It maintains the greatest level of consistency in a modern Star Trek series between seasons while managing to successfully take what worked in the first year and often amplify it. There is no doubt – Season 2 is, overall, a stronger year of Lower Decks than Season 1.

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Alias, Season Reviews, TV

ALIAS (Season 1) – Overview

The first season of Alias, the show that put superstar producer-director J.J. Abrams on the map, has aged remarkably well.

Airing in 2001, a matter of weeks in the wake of the traumatic September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, Alias had the unenviable task of providing overblown, B-movie, pulp escapism to an audience reeling from the most existentially terrifying attack on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Abrams, fresh off his first TV series Felicity (starring the later-to-be-famous Keri Russell) and a career penning screenplays across the 1990’s for major Hollywood blockbusters, had to try and sell a show which captured the retro, cult aesthetics of 1960’s adventure shows and movies he had grown up with – Mission: Impossible, I Spy, the James Bond series – shot through with a stylish, slick, modern action sensibility.

It was a hard sell. Audiences gravitated far more to the intense, dour, revenge fantasy of 24 and all-American hero Jack Bauer, who steadily across a decade in which Americans and Western Europe turned their gaze toward Islamic fundamentalism and the threat of the Middle East became more of the superhero Americans wanted. If he was The Punisher, a man of dubious morals ready to compromise his soul for the greater good, then Alias’ hero Sydney Bristow was Captain America; virtuous, homely, and a reflection of wholesome American values, wrapped up inside familial and emotional angst that recalled Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Audiences never truly took Sydney to their breast, to their heart, and almost immediately Alias became a cult genre hit, never to explode fully into the global mainstream.

The sad thing about this is just how well executed Alias’ first season is, one of those rare shows that arrives almost fully formed and very quickly steps into a unique tone and rhythm, only building on that start to deliver twenty two episodes which provide a real sense of payoff.

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Essays, Essays, Film, Game of Thrones, Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Trek: Discovery, TV

End Game of Treks: Is Time-Travel Becoming a Storytelling Crutch?

In one of the busiest few months in science-fiction and fantasy popular-culture, the beginning of 2019 has seen three major franchises in cinema and on television become embroiled in what could be rapidly becoming a narrative crutch.

Time-travel.

The lacklustre Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery (I really promise to stop talking about this soon) saw the crew of the Starfleet ship launch themselves almost 1000 into the distant Federation future to prevent a universe-destroying, rampant AI from wiping out all life. The gigantic conclusion to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first era, Avengers: Endgame, saw our superheroes enter the Quantum Realm and zip backwards across time to recover the universe-shattering Infinity Stones before the Mad Titan, Thanos, can snap his fingers again and wipe out half of all sentient life. And just this week, Game of Thrones saw the ultimate battle with the Night King and his army of the dead, coming to wipe out the living, which all hung on the fate of Bran Stark, a time-travelling tree-wizard.

Anyone noticing a pattern here? Three legendary franchises. Three titanic threats to the fabric of the entire universe. And in each case, the resolution of the paradox has the potential to lie in the bending of time.

We’re in danger of death by temporal mechanics if we’re not careful.

Continue reading “End Game of Treks: Is Time-Travel Becoming a Storytelling Crutch?”