Writer(s): William Bridges, Kate Trefey, Paul Dichter, Curtis Gwinn
Cast: Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Sadie Sink, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Maya Hawke, Cara Buono, Joe Keery, Cary Elwes and many, many more.
Number of episodes: 8
Original Network: Netflix
**CONTAIN MASSIVE SPOILERS**
When Season 1 was released, Netflix’s phenomenally popular sci-fi-rites-of-passage-comedy-adventure-drama proved an excellent nostalgia-fest. Indeed, it evoked the 1980’s perfectly in design, sound and look, wearing Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, John Carpenter and George Lucas influences, not so much on its sleeve, but as a whole darned fashion show.
Written and directed by the Duffer Brothers, it centred on the search for a missing child in (where else) Indiana, an ultra-dimensional netherworld and a telekinetic kid called Eleven, who’s on the run from a nefarious US Government facility. Archetypal characters such as embittered drunken cop (David Harbour), distraught nutty mother (Winona Ryder), Gooniesque geeky teens all try and track down their missing friend during eight episodes containing weird and monstrous moments throughout.
I thought Season 1, while full of great design, style, suspense and mystery, was over-rated. It was still a fine work of entertainment but I found the story seriously padded out and stretched. While Season 2 is more generic it was a marked improvement as we got more pace and action. Season 3, though, is even better in terms of story-lines, pace and humour. Some may lament the move away from the mystery and darkness of Season 1, but Season 3’s humour, action and romantic sub-plots are turned right up to Eleven (pun intended).
Furthermore, amidst all the teenage romance crap, there is some fantastic gore and visceral monster goo on show. The Mind Flayer nemesis is an absolutely fearsome creature creation and way more convincing than the cartoon Russians. So, overall, I think this was my favourite season as it didn’t take itself too seriously. It just went for pure adrenaline and mind-bending chases and fights throughout. I didn’t even mind the John Hughes-style soppy romances.
Lastly, Season 3 isn’t perfect as it often verged on parody. This is notable in Episode 8, where we get a viral-bait version of The Never Ending Story (1984) theme song. Quite frankly, it was tonally inappropriate given the kids were being hunted down by Russian soldiers and an inter-dimensional monster at the time. Aside from this crime against genre occurring Season 3 is great because it featured a cavalcade of film references and homages. Well, let’s be honest, they basically stole a load of ideas from other movies.
So, rather than do a traditional review I will mark Stranger Things (2019) – Season 3, and then pick a TOP TEN movie homages or steals that featured prominently as a fun meta-bingo review. Obviously, I’ve probably missed loads out, so, if you care, let me know which ones.
Mark: 9 out of 11
TOP TEN META-REFERENCES IN STRANGER THINGS (2019)
RUSSIAN BADDIE — THE TERMINATOR (1984)
BILLY AND TOWNSFOLK ‘DOUBLES’ — INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956 / 1978)
THE MIND FLAYER – THE BLOB (1958) / ALIEN (1979) / THE THING (1982) / TREMORS (1990)
STEVE AND ROBIN’S “WILL THEY, WON’T THEY ROMANCE?” — ANY JOHN HUGHES FILM!
THE BLACK WATER VOID – UNDER THE SKIN (2013)
USA VERSUS RUSSIA — RED DAWN (1984), RAMBO 2 (1985) & ANY COLD WAR FILM!
BILLY’S DREAMS — DREAMSCAPE (1984) / NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
ELEVEN’S TELEKINETIC POWERS — CARRIE (1976), THE FURY (1978) & SCANNERS (1981) ETC. . .
KIDS ON A MISSION TO SAVE THE TOWN/WORLD (AGAIN) — THE GOONIES (1985)
FANTASY OLDER WOMEN DYNAMIC — RISKY BUSINESS (1983) / WEIRD SCIENCE (1985)
Season 5: 3 Episodes (excludes Bandersnatch (2019)
Original Network: Netflix
Having positively reviewed Season 4 of Charlie Brooker’s wonderful anthology show here and the recent “choose-your-own-adventure” stand alone film, Bandersnatch (2019), here – I can further confirm I am a massive Black Mirror fan. Indeed, if Charlie Brooker wrote and produced a story about himself having his toenails clipped in the future, I would definitely enjoy it that too.
Lastly, it’s safe to say I certainly loved the latest three episodes of the programme and not just because Brooker wrote them. It’s because the ideas relating to the darker side of technology are so fascinating and of course the productions are of very high quality. Here are mini reviews of each episode with usual marks out of eleven.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
STRIKING VIPERS (2019)
Director: Owen Harris
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Nicole Beharie, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Pom Klementieff and Ludi Lin.
Danny (Mackie) and Theo (Beharie) portray a loving couple who having been together for some time suffer a marriage dip and a somewhat curious eleven-year itch. This drama is especially propelled when Danny’s best mate, Karl (Abdul-Mateen II) reconnects with Danny and the two play the Virtual-Reality video-game, Striking Vipers, online. Soon the two enter into a curious online relationship, one which threatens their relationships and sanity.
While the danger of videogames and VR have been explored before in Black Mirror, this is freshly presented both dramatically and humorously via an unexpected and bizarre love triangle. I was very empathetic for the main characters as they felt trapped by family life and struggle to keep the romance going. Plus, that need to escape propels some hilarious scenes that pay homage and parody combat videogames in general. Funny, touching and surprising, Striking Vipers is an excellent season opener.
Mark: 9 out of 11
Director: James Hawes
Cast: Andrew Scott, Damson Idris, Amanda Drew, Monica Dolan, Topher Grace etc.
Actor-of-the-moment, Andrew Scott, gives another blistering performance as a rideshare/”Uber” driver, Chris Gillhaney, who kidnaps a young Smithereen employee, Jaden (Damson Idris). Smithereen are a social media company not dissimilar to Facebook or Twitter, and Gillhaney holds a serious grudge against them. It’s so serious in fact, he will kill Jaden if he doesn’t get to speak directly to Smithereen CEO, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace).
Structured around a very tense standoff in an English field between Gillhaney and the Police, the events also go ‘viral’ via social media and online news platforms. Scott’s characterisation of Gillhaney is dramatically impressive. He emits a sadness, guilt and anxiety which forces his character to commit an unlikely crime. While we do not condone his actions Scott keeps you onside with his sterling portrayal of a man on the edge. Ultimately, the narrative turn at the end impacted me because it felt so believable and human. Once again Brooker taps into the heart of the technological matter and how reliance on it can cause tragedy and senseless loss of life.
Mark: 9.5 out of 11
RACHEL, JACK AND ASHLEY TOO (2019)
Director: Anne Sewitsky
Cast: Miley Cyrus, Angourie Rice, Madison Davenport, Susan Pourfar etc.
Pop star Miley Cyrus stars as pop star Ashley-O in this dramatic and comedic techno satire, which finds her character being pushed to the creative limit by her unscrupulous manager. At the same time Ashley-O uber-fan, Rachel (Angourie Rice), worships every word Ashley O’s manufactured persona spits out; much to the chagrin of her metal-head sister, Jack (Madison Davenport.) The two sisters’ conflict is exacerbated when Rachel is given an Ashley-O smart speaker and Rachel becomes obsessed with the techno doll. As the story progresses the two Ashley-O narratives connect in a somewhat contrived but captivating way.
Starting as a teenage-rites-of-passage-profile-of-a-pop-star-mash-up, this narrative crosses the genres and becomes a heist-led comedy by the end. With so many criss-crossing leaps in style the characters get a little bit lost in the mix of ideas. However, use of technology to exploit both the pop singer and the all-consuming fan finds Charlie Brooker’s satirical darts hitting more targets than it misses. Arguably, this is the weakest of the three episodes as the onerous pop manager is a bit of a cliche. Plus, more planning could have gone into the final act when it all felt rushed. It is nonetheless very entertaining episode, very much on point in its vision of pop culture, the music industry and society’s ever reliance on technology for emotional interaction.
Producers: Jason Bateman, Chris Mundy, Bill Dubuque, Mark Williams
Director(s): Jason Bateman, Andrew Bernstein, Phil Abraham, Alik Sakharov, Ben Semanoff, Amanda Marsalis
Writers: Chris Mundy, David Manson, Alyson Feites, Ryan Farley, Paul Kolsby, Ning Zhou, Martin Zimmerman
Cast: Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Sofia Hublitz, Skylar Gaertner, Julia Garner, Jordana Spiro, Lisa Emery, Jason Butler Harmer, Harris Yulin, Peter Mullan etc.
Original Network: Netflix
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
The Byrde family are back for a second season trying to keep their heads above bitter Ozark lake water once again. If you haven’t seen the show Jason Bateman plays an accountant who has to go on the run with his family to Ozark, Missouri while working for a murderous Mexican drug cartel. Accompanying him is his wife, Wendy, portrayed by Laura Linney and their two teenage children, Jonah and Charlotte.
Without wishing to give away too many spoilers I can reveal the first season found the Byrde’s lives under threat from the Mexican Cartel and the FBI, while at the same time they made new local enemies in the Langmores and the Snells. The structure of the season one and two is to essentially place the American “nuclear family” at the heart of a crime noir thriller and watch them use their intelligence and wits to save their skins. What is even more apparent though in Season 2 is that, like with Breaking Bad, the ingenuity of the writing means we are rooting for the bad guys. I mean, the Byrdes are money-laundering criminals, but somehow the performances and screenwriting makes us root for them, mostly.
Having created some geographical and financial stability in the Ozarks by funnelling drug monies through various local business ventures, Marty and Wendy spend all of this season planning to get a casino up and running on the lake. Of course, this is met with resistance from many parties, notably the local crime family, the Snells; the FBI led by twisted obsessive, Roy Petty; Ruth Langmore’s jailbird father, Cade; and most significantly the State Senate which must pass the bill for a new casino. The latter is where Wendy’s character proves her worth as she has experience manipulating the political process following years working as campaign manager in Washington.
In the past I have criticised some Netflix shows for having too many episodes and being full of filler. Well, it’s safe to say there is little in the way of filler in these ten episodes. The suspense, pace and narrative zip along, fully committed to the substantial plots and compelling subplots. Of course, it feels very familiar, yet the “innocent family under threat” trope so often used by Hitchcock and other thriller filmmakers is cork-screwed here. Both Marty and Wendy fight back against their nemeses with cunning and threat. Wendy’s character arc is particularly enthralling, because as Marty begins to waver and his Borg-like cloak of non-emotion slips, she revels in the power-games, even as the body count begins to mount up.
If you love crime thrillers as I do you will love Ozark. While the elements are quite generic the acting, writing and directing are right out of the top draw. I also love the cinematographic style too. Some may say they find it literally too dark. However, the lack of white balance adds to the murky nature of the events in play. The crisp darkness and shadow paradoxically illuminate the inner machinations of some very dark souls. I mean, while the Byrde family are criminals, they are actually sane when compared to the likes of psychotic Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery) and sewer rat, Cade Langmore (Trevor Long). Their characters are so unhinged I wouldn’t want to argue with them, even on the phone.
Ozark, also has at least three almost-perfect acting performances from Jason Bateman, Laura Linney and Julia Garner as the young Ruth Langmore. Garner for such a young actress steals every scene. I think she is destined for a great career. Garner gives her character a sparky, intelligent and tough-nut exterior, but vulnerable interior. Plus, a strong theme of the show is loyalty and survival of the family unit. As much as Ruth Langmore tries to stay loyal to her family, fate and her poor choices conspire against her. Oh, and I almost forgot the Season 2 acting cherry on the cake, with Janet McTeer’s crime lawyer kicking in our dramatic shins with wicked aplomb.
In short: Ozark is a treat for an audience hungry for plot driven crime dramas. It perpetually springs narrative traps as the themes throb darkly. The underlying theme seems to be you have to be bad to survive and anyone who isn’t ultimately pays the price. Because God and humanity have forsaken Ozark, Missouri, with only shadow in bloom. Blessed with incredible acting, fine writing and twists throughout, I for one cannot wait for Season 3 to be released next month on Netflix.
Written by: Charlie Covell (based on comic novella by Charles Forsman)
Cast: Alex Lawther, Jessica Barden, Gemma Whelan, Wunmi Mosaku, Steve Oram, Christine Bottomley, Navin Chowdhry etc.
Original Network: Channel 4
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
This Channel Four comedy-drama can be found on both ALL 4 and Netflix. It is certainly recommended for those who like their comedy darker than an Arctic winter’s day. It concerns a teenager called James (Alex Lawther) who believes he’s a psychopath, who decides to go from killing animals to people. Enter Jessica Barden’s equally maladjusted Alyssa, and we get eight episodes of acidic, violent, rites-of-passage and anti-romantic mischief.
The first episode is arguably the strongest as it starts with a breakneck pace establishing James character history and how he meets Alyssa. They are both very nihilistic and unlikable but that’s the point. The series is an anathema to the conventional feel-good Hollywood sitcoms and comedy films. This is violent and nasty with lost kids ignored or endangered by the adults around them. Indeed, aside from Gemma Whelan’s likeable police officer there aren’t many characters to empathise with here.
It is a testament to the fine acting by rising stars Lawther and Barden that the show held my interest over the eight short episodes. As the two anti-heroes go on the run across country I was reminded of the Tarantino scripted films True Romance (1993) and Natural Born Killers (1994), but filmed in Surrey. Of course, End of the F***king World (2017) doesn’t benefit from Tarantino’s wicked dialogue, however, it compels with a journey into some very twisted places.
Nominated for a BAFTA for Best Drama Series, I didn’t enjoy as much as some reviewers and critics did. I think this is mainly due to the fact it doesn’t really have much to say other than life is shit. Also, the characters don’t particularly learn anything, change or have a particularly intriguing philosophy. Moreover, their story begins and ends in abject nihilism with little hope for a brighter future. Don’t get me wrong, I love dark comedies and dramas, but this was relentlessly depressing and probably would have been better as a punchier ninety-minute film rather than a series. Overall, though the smart script and malignant characters had a dark magnetism. That and the excellent performances make it worth a watching if you’re feeling in a “I-hate-the-world” kind of mood.
THE CINEMA FIX PRESENTS: APRIL FILM REVIEW ROUND-UP
With Avengers: Endgame (2019) dominating the cinemas at the moment, I thought I’d let Marvel’s magic dust settle BEFORE seeing that blockbuster this weekend. However, during April I caught a few other newer releases at the cinema and online via Netflix. Thus, here are some mini-reviews with the usual marks out of eleven.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
GRETA (2018) – CINEMA – DIRECTOR: NEIL JORDAN
Neil Jordan has an impressive directorial curriculum vitae, including genuine classics such as: Mona Lisa (1986), The Crying Game (1992) and The End of the Affair (1999). Greta is arguably not a patch on them; however, I really enjoyed this B-movie stalker narrative. This is mainly due to a fine cast headed by Isabelle Huppert, Chloe Grace Moretz and Maika Monroe.
Huppert exudes Gallic charm and quiet menace as the obsessive and lonely Greta. Furthermore, as her behaviour becomes more unhinged Jordan wrings every bit of tension from the lean and thrilling script. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography also adds class to a very entertaining ninety-eight minutes.
Mark: 8 out of 11
LOVE, DEATH & ROBOTS (2019) – NETFLIX – DIRECTOR(S): VARIOUS
This anthology of eighteen animated short films was curated by Joshua Donen, David Fincher, Jennifer Miller and Tim Miller. Produced by various crews from a range of countries, the series is a re-imagining of Fincher and Miller’s long-planned reboot of animated sci-fi film Heavy Metal (1981). Firstly, I love short films and have watched a lot over the last ten years, and I don’t mind animated stuff either.
In Love, Death and Robots the animation, graphics, action, editing, composition and imagery on show here are incredible. The stories themselves are hit and miss; with some actually feeling over-sexualised and retrogressive. Nonetheless, the production values on show raise the bar so high it masks some of the generic writing and weak characterisation. Lastly, there are some brilliant shorts and my favourites include: Three Robots, Shape Shifters, Zima Blue, Ice Age and the very funny Alternate Histories.
Mark: 8 out of 11 (averaged score)
OUTLAW / KING (2019) – NETFLIX – DIRECTOR: DAVID MACKENZIE
According to Wikipedia this historical epic about Scottish nobleman, Robert the Bruce, cost $120 million to make. It’s a shame so much money was wasted because technically speaking the production is an absolute tour de force. It’s a pity the script and narrative are so bereft of intrigue, suspense and character relatability. Yes, I get that the English are bad and the Scottish must stand up to defeat their nefarious “landlords”, but unlike the far more theatrical and entertaining, Braveheart (1995), this all felt irrelevant.
I thought Chris Pine, who is a charismatic movie star, lacked personality in the lead, and Florence Pugh, as his wife, was given little to do apart from run away then get kidnapped. Aaron Taylor-Johnson was fantastic as a bloody revenging Scottish rebel-lord; as was David Mackenzie’s incredible direction of the impressive battle scenes. I have read that the film was hacked to pieces and what is on show is a hung-drawn-and-quartered cut of a longer film. Perhaps, one day we will see a true version of Outlaw / King and Mackenzie’s vision will be properly represented.
Not quite a dirty dozen but a filthy five as former soldiers and military contractors including: Oscar Isaac, Ben Affleck, Charlie Hunnam, Garrett Hedlund and Pedro Pascal, gang together to rob a drug baron’s fortress holed up deep in the South American jungle. The story has all the hallmarks of a testosterone-driven-men-on-a-mission-genre classic, but just when I thought it was going in a certain direction, the ending under-mined much of the previous compelling action.
The cast are very impressive though and they more than make up for any deficiencies in the thin characterisations. Similarly, while it starts slowly, once we get into the heist J.C. Chandor’s methodical directorial style really comes into its’ own. Chandor creates a lot of tension during and after the robbery as events twist out of control. Thematically, I thought this was going to become a modern day version of 1948 masterpiece, The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Indeed, if the drug money they steal had become a true threat to test the friends’ loyalty and courage under fire, I would have marked this thrilling film higher.
Mark: 8 out of 11
UNICORN STORE (2018) – NETFLIX – DIRECTOR: BRIE LARSON
This is a very odd film. However, if you pick through the bones of the whimsical script, the rainbow-baubled art direction and Brie Larson’s eccentric child-woman, you’ll find a rites-of-passage genre film in there somewhere. Larson directs herself as the immature narcissist, who having been kicked out of Art College begins a dead end temp job to try and appease her parents. So far so relatable.
However, the film twists into symbolic fantasy when she is offered, by Samuel L. Jackson’s enigmatic ‘Salesman’, the dream opportunity of owning a Unicorn. WTF!!?! I enjoyed a lot about the film, notably the Napoleon Dynamite (2004) style humour; plus Larson and Mamadou Athie’s performances stand out. Overall though, I got that the Unicorn was an allegory for human maturation but I personally felt the narrative was slow and stretched despite fine work from the very talented Larson.
THE NETFLIX MEMORANDUM – INCLUDING REVIEWS OF: AFTERLIFE, THE DIRT, RUSSIAN DOLL, DAREDEVIL ETC.
For some insane reason I have given up alcohol for the year and the weight of reality and time burdens my everyday existence. First world problems abide. Anyway, while my liver breathes a huge sigh of relief, my mind still desires stimulus. Thus, I have, in my constant sobriety, had even more time to stream and watch even more films and television. These bitesize reviews look at the latest stuff I’ve seen on the behemoth streamer Netflix; with the usual marks out of eleven.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Ricky Gervais’ latest fictional piece is a really enjoyable tragi-comedy. His everyman, Tony, is suffering severe grief following the passing of his wife. Sadly he allows misanthropy and suicidal thoughts to overcome his daily existence in the fictional town of Tambury. The comedy is founded on dark materials but filled with deep humanity as we watch Tony wrestle with his demons.
I especially loved the eccentric characters and jokes concerning Tony’s job as a reporter with the local newspaper. The supporting cast are a joy too and include brilliant comedians like: David Earl, Kerry Godliman, Joe Wilkinson, Tom Basden and Diane Morgan. The ensemble cast and fine writing combine to create a simple, funny and emotional journey through one’s man’s fight with depression and grief.(Mark: 9 out of 11)
ABDUCTED IN PLAIN SIGHT (2019)
I keep telling myself not to watch such true crime documentaries as they make me feel really sad about the state of human behaviour. This story from the United States was in documentary film form so I got pulled back in by not having to sit through ten episodes of horror. Also, I’d heard it was a pretty incredible story too so my interest was piqued by that.
Safe to say this grim tale of grooming, paedophilia and abduction that one family suffered at the hands of a human monster in the 1970s, is something you wish you could un-see. As a documentary film it is very well made but it does make you lament the gullibility of some people and sickness of others. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
DAREDEVIL (2018) – SEASON 3
I’d say Matt Murdoch’s Daredevil is my favourite of the Marvel/Netflix streamed offerings. Charlie Cox is a fine actor and the drama, fighting and villainous rendition of Wilson Fisk by Vincent D’Onofrio, make it essential viewing. While it takes a huge gulp to believe that a blind guy could be that great at fighting criminals with sight, once you buy into that premise the show offers a lot of fun.
While not scaling the heights of Season 1, and lacking the brutal Punisher (John Bernthal) side-plot of Season 2, this latest Season 3 finds Murdoch up against Fisk again and a new psychopath in rogue FBI agent, Ben Poindexter. Like other Marvel adaptations on Netflix it’s still five episodes too long and bogged down with plodding angst and lengthy dialogue scenes, so doesn’t quite hit the bulls-eye throughout. Nonetheless, it’s still compelling drama and the hand-to-hand fight scenes are an absolute sensation. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
THE DIRT (2019)
Crazed rock stars take drugs, smash up hotel rooms, screw groupies and almost die due to their excess is the unsurprising narrative ups and downs of this Motley Crue biopic. It’s not a bad watch but is essentially like a poorer version of This is Spinal Tap, without the incredible gag-rate. The film fleshes out the caricature members of the band showing their human side; Douglas Booth and Iwan Rheon bringing depth to their paper-thin roles. Moreover, while the era and stadium shows are really well emulated the direction lacks alot of imagination.
I mean, there was an intense film about addiction and human excess in here, and while we do get some moving scenes, notably with singer Vince Neil’s life struggles and Nikki Sixx’s heroin dependancy; ultimately the film did not dig deep enough into their characters. Still, fans of the band and their energetic rock music will love it no doubt. (Mark: 6 out of 11)
JESSICA JONES (2018) – SEASON 2
Kristen Ritter is back as Marvel’s hard-drinking, misanthropic and super-powered private investigator; and she remains very pissed off. Season 1 of Jessica Jones was absolutely brilliant due to David Tennant’s incredible villain, Kilgrave, and Jones’ character arc reflecting the damaging nature of controlling relationships.
Season 2, alas, is a plodding let-down full of filler episodes and weak sub-plots which quite frankly bored me. While Ritter holds the season together, the investigation into her past gets dragged down by soap operatics and a severe lack of pace and action. Mark: 6 out of 11
Mads Mikkelsen is one of my favourite actors and he is on good form as a crack hit-man daubed ‘The Black Kaiser’. There’s a decent B-movie in here somewhere but the attention-deficient and showy direction detract from a potentially interesting story of regret and redemption. Moreover, while the action scenes are deftly realised the stupid characterisation, exploitative sex scenes and amoral violence drag the film into the unwatchable territory.
The least said about Matt Lucas’ performance as the amoral ‘Mr Big’ the better; here a usually excellent comic actor is given appalling direction that, like most of the film, lacks subtlety, tone and emotion. (Mark: 3 out of 11)
RUSSIAN DOLL (2019)
Another Groundhog Day copy gets a run out with Natasha Lyonne’s sassy computer programmer finding herself living out the same day over and over with various insane diversions along the way. It starts off really interestingly with lots of crazy deaths, character revelations and existential suffering. However, it soon runs out of steam, adding up to eight dramatically paper-thin episodes, more style than content.
Lyonne, is a fine actor who I like very much, delivers every line like New York comedian Andrew Dice Clay and this grated on me in the end as I felt I was watching a stand-up performance rather than a fully-rounded character searching for the meaning of life. (Mark: 6.5 out of 11)
THE SINNER (2018) – SEASON 2
After the surprisingly excellent Season 1 of The Sinner, I was really looking forward to the second season. The cop show format is twisted in a really interesting way as we see the accused commit the crime, yet find the cop, in this case the impressive Bill Pullman, empathising with the criminal. Pullman’s Harry Ambrose is a brilliant creation. He’s not flashy or loquacious but a determined and dogged cop with his own personal demons.
Drawn to the troubled or underdog Ambrose digs for justice and redemption. In this story he sees his own past in the crimes of a 13 year-old boy accused of murder and is determined to find answers. Here the boy in question is given a compelling performance by Elisha Henig; and his characters’ commune existence and family history had me gripped throughout. A supporting cast including Carrie Coon and Tracy Letts also add real quality to this stirring psychological drama with themes relating to: physical and psychological abuse; religious cults; family tragedy; mental illness; and the darkness of the human spirit. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
Executive Producers: Michael Schur, David Miner, Morgan Sackett, Drew Goddard
Producers: David Hyman, Joe Mande, Megan Amram
Starring: Kristen Bell, Wiliam Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, D’Arcy Carden, Manny Jacinto and Ted Danson
US Network: NBC / UK Platform: Netflix
**SPOILER FREE REVIEW**
“Hell is other people.” Jean Paul Sartre
So I started watching The Good Place with expectations of it being another slickly written and performed, shiny, sparkly and goofy American sitcom. I figured I would check it out, give it a season, enjoy and then allow it to slide into viewing obscurity. However, little did I realise it was going to be one of the funniest, intelligent, imaginative, philosophical, slick, shiny, goofy and densely plotted television shows I had seen in years.
Created by uber-comedy-producer Michael Schur, The Good Place, has an immediately fascinating high-concept premise. Set in the ‘after-life’, it deals with the lives and deaths of four disparate characters, namely: Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto). They have all died and gone to a version of heaven, but there’s been a mistake. Eleanor is the snag. Due to a cosmic confusion she should not be there. Her behaviour ratings on Earth are so low she should have gone to ‘The Bad Place’ instead.
Frantically attempting to cover up this hellish mistake, the immoral, selfish and petualnt Eleanor enlists the indecisive but very moral Chidi to teach her how to be good. Thus, begins one of the major themes of the show: what does it mean to be a good person? As a moral philosophy professor when alive, Chidi, reluctantly agrees to train Eleanor. However, she is so inherently selfish it proves a tough task, and much humour comes from Chidi and Eleanor’s life perspectives clashing. Overseeing the “guests'” everyday lives are the architect/angel (arch-angel geddit!), Michael, played with the usual comic brilliance by Ted Danson; and super enthusiastic, Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a personified, sentient, artificially-intelligent computer.
The Good Place starts strong with a brilliant premise and then cascades into a series of incredible events, flashbacks and character reveals, culminating in some hilarious and ingenious narrative twists. Michael Schur is a past master of ensemble comedy, having worked on the The Office (U.S.) and Parks and Recreation; and here his army of writers, actors, designers and effects team serve his fantastic vision superbly. Moreover, the cast zing out the screwball-comedy paced dialogue and gags with laser-sharp comedy timing, with Kristen Bell the pick of the lot. The flashback scenes which show Eleanor back on Earth illustrating why she should go to hell are particularly hilarious. Of course, she’s not precisely evil but very human; she’s just not very good at being human.
Thus, if you want a television show which is shiny on the outside but actually quite dark on the inside then this is for you. The Good Place makes you both laugh and think. It deals with death, religion, heaven, hell, human behaviour and also gives insight into basic philosophy. I mean, it’s educational too; you learn about Camus, Sartre, Kant, Mill and many more! Overall, all three seasons zip along full of zinging one-liners that had me breathless from start to finish and it has heart too. You get to love these characters, despite their faults, and the show certainly leaves you in a very good place.