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”
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?”
Essays, Men Behaving Badly, TV

The Cult of ‘Laddism’: MEN BEHAVING BADLY (Series 3 & 4)

Celebrated 1990’s British sitcom Men Behaving Badly recently returned to UK Netflix, which feels like a good opportunity to explore a show which helped define its decade, series by series. Has it stood the test of time?

If the third series of Men Behaving Badly sets the show on the road to British comedy success, the fourth series is arguably the year that cements the cult following that grew up around it – the mid-1990’s cult of ‘laddism’.

The first two series of Simon Nye’s show had the concept but it lacked in terms of execution. Martin Clunes stood out immediately as Gary Strang, a hapless, middle-class thirty-something determined to prove his own sexual vitality and fight against a perfectly ordinary relationship with an ordinary woman. His pairing with Harry Enfield as Dermot Povey in Series 1 never quite worked, with Dermot’s passivity in the face of ‘lad culture’ immediately exposed an underwhelming in Series 2 by the arrival of his replacement, Neil Morrissey’s Tony Smart. Though arguably Nye doesn’t fully figure out how Tony works until well into Series 3, his dynamic with Clunes was far more natural, as was it with the shows female co-stars Caroline Quentin and Leslie Ash.

Come the third and particularly the fourth series, their natural dynamic steadily becomes edgier, naughtier, more raucous and more specifically about the growing aspects of ‘laddism’ that were being popularised in mid-90’s culture; dirty lads magazines, drunk nights in the pub, looser attitudes toward fidelity and a determination to prove the masculine sense of virility in sexual conquests with women. Men Behaving Badly, on moving from a pre-watershed ITV slot to post-watershed airing space on the BBC, steadily across both of these series embraces the promise of its title. Tony grows more desperate, Gary more lascivious, and both become more boorish and prone to embrace the physically grotesque.

What happens as a result? Men Behaving Badly becomes steadily funnier, more acute in its social and moral commentary, and arguably in Series 4 reaches its creative apex.

Continue reading “The Cult of ‘Laddism’: MEN BEHAVING BADLY (Series 3 & 4)”
Essays, Men Behaving Badly, TV

The Birth of ‘Laddism’: MEN BEHAVING BADLY (Series 1 & 2)

Celebrated 1990’s British sitcom Men Behaving Badly recently returned to UK Netflix, which feels like a good opportunity to explore a show which helped define its decade, series by series. Has it stood the test of time?

Men Behaving Badly, one of the most popular and well-loved British comedy series of the 1990’s, you suspect is a show that a lot of people have not rewatched in a long time.

Running for six series, a Christmas special, and three special concluding episodes between 1992 and 1998, Simon Nye’s ITV and later BBC series (based on a book of the same name by the writer), Men Behaving Badly was a show that struck a clear chord in the 90’s as a response to the phenomenon of the ‘New Man’, a pro-feminist, almost new age male figure who eschewed boorish masculinity at the tail end of the 1980’s and into the 1990’s, but we must be careful to mark out Nye’s series as a rejection of such a movement. Men Behaving Badly is sometimes mischaracterised as a major influence on the birth of ‘laddism’, or a ‘new lad’ subculture which rejected the progressive, gender equal feminist movement in favour of a return to masculine, and often misogynistic ideals.

In truth, Nye’s series is a clear and approximate satire on the rejection of the ‘New Man’, revolving around two (or as it ends up being, three) men who both epitomise aspects of ‘laddism’ while proving, uncategorically, how pathetic such positions are. While Men Behaving Badly gets off to a slow and in places rocky start with its first series, the template by the end of the first six episodes is clearly defined. Martin Clunes’ Gary and Harry Enfield’s Dermot are flatmates and a fairly useless pair of men at the tail end of their youth, still trying to define themselves by fake masculinity, sexual promiscuity, and personal success. In the time honoured tradition of British comedy, they are endlessly doomed to failure in all of these aspects, held back by their own selfishness, lack of self-awareness and frequent childish behaviour.

Even more acutely, especially with the benefit of hindsight, neither Gary or Dermot in the first series are men who don’t actually behave particularly *badly*.

Continue reading “The Birth of ‘Laddism’: MEN BEHAVING BADLY (Series 1 & 2)”
Essays, TV

Plugging Gaps: How backstory is becoming story

Remember the time that backstory was just that? Backstory.

Many of the most successful TV shows and movies are specifically built on a sense of their own mythology and world building. Game of Thrones has a series of vast novels to draw on which detail an incredibly complicated social and political eco-system, for example. Backstory, the details of the universes of these tales and the histories of many characters within the stories, provide the unseen depth and ballast to the tale we are being told, the tale we are invested in.

In recent years, however, the trend of this has begun to shift. Our biggest stories within popular culture are now becoming obsessed with backstory not just being developed to enable the narrative, they are instead becoming the narrative. Storytellers are actively attempting to try and ‘plug gaps’, for want of a better term, in continuity and canon, believing it seems that audiences are as obsessed with these minor details as the writers of these properties appear to be. We are losing the element of ambiguity, surprise and mystery.

We are losing backstory by exploring too much of it.

Continue reading “Plugging Gaps: How backstory is becoming story”
Essays, Star Trek: Discovery, TV

Fandom, STAR TREK: DISCOVERY and its Dark Reflection

Talking about the second season of Star Trek: Discovery this year has been a difficult experience in places.

Not just because the recently concluded fourteen-episode run wasn’t a particularly good season of television but also thanks to the way some of the online Star Trek fandom have responded to criticism. It hasn’t been pretty for those who have suggested Season 2 might not be, at the very least, enjoyable. This I can say from experience. Before my wrap up piece, which itself has been greeted with some vitriol in certain Facebook quarters where it has been shared, I wrote the occasional episode review of Season 2 for my former website Set The Tape – specifically for the episodes Brother, An Obol for Charon and Project: Daedalus. All of these episodes I found problematic.
In sharing that opinion, I felt the full force of how troubling fandom can be.

This probably should come as less of a surprise to me. I have written before about the toxicity of Star Wars fandom, and the broader direction of fandom specifically after the release of The Last Jedi, yet I remain taken aback by just how aggressively some quarters of fandom refuse to entertain a contrary point of view.

Continue reading “Fandom, STAR TREK: DISCOVERY and its Dark Reflection”
Essays, TV

FLEABAG and the Masterpiece criteria

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

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

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

Continue reading “FLEABAG and the Masterpiece criteria”
Alan Partridge, Essays, TV

The Many Lives of ALAN PARTRIDGE: Exploring Britain’s most enduring comic creation

There is something unique about Alan Partridge, a comedic alchemy which transcends one moment and one space.

With the end of This Time, and Alan’s stint as an unlikely co-host parachuted into the BBC’s fictional prime time magazine drama, it feels like Alan’s journey has come full circle. He began life as a radio disc jockey turned news presenter, blossomed into a chat show host, suffered a spectacular fall from BBC grace, toiled in the doldrums of regional radio, and at the conclusion of This Time, looks set to never—never!—work in television again.

In reality, we know this won’t be the case. The Partridge will always rise (like the phoenix) when the time calls for him. Alan is both a product of his time and becomes the product of whatever time he finds himself in.

Continue reading “The Many Lives of ALAN PARTRIDGE: Exploring Britain’s most enduring comic creation”
Essays, TV

Alias Ricky Gervais: AFTER LIFE and the comedic therapy session

What happened to Ricky Gervais?

His latest major television project, After Life, feels like the culmination of this divisive, oft-controversial comedian and what he has been attempting to give audiences for almost 20 years, since The Office made him a household British and American name. Gervais, as grief-stricken widower Tony, has lost touch with the purpose of life to such a degree he no longer cares about offending anyone; and is resolved to say what he wants, when he wants, to whom he wants.“It’s like a superpower…” he boasts with the freedom of someone with nothing to lose.

Yet what on the face of it is billed as a dark, mordant comedy with a bad boy streak, with the wilfully offensive Gervais having the vehicle to create a comic monster filled with bitterness – David Brent spliced with One Foot in the Grave’s Victor Meldrew – never actually comes to bear. After Life is underpinned with a powerful sense of at times mawkish sentimentality to the point you wonder whether you should be laughing at the clear, telegraphed comedy built around Tony’s refusal to edit himself? It almost feels too personal to laugh at, given Gervais wants us to simultaneously wince and care about this broken, sad and nihilistic man.

What it left me wondering is this… is After Life really about Tony, or is it in some bizarre way about Ricky?

Continue reading “Alias Ricky Gervais: AFTER LIFE and the comedic therapy session”
Essays, TV

The Sense of an Ending: GAME OF THRONES, LOST and Delayed Anticipation

There really is nothing like an ending.

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

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

Continue reading “The Sense of an Ending: GAME OF THRONES, LOST and Delayed Anticipation”