Category Archives: Television

THE GOOD PLACE (S1 – S3) TV / NETFLIX REVIEW

THE GOOD PLACE (S1 – S3) TV / NETFLIX REVIEW

Created by: Michael Schur

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.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11

ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA (2018) – SHOWTIME REVIEW – Cinematic TV drama of the highest quality!

ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA (2018) – SHOWTIME TV REVIEW

Created by: Brett Johnson, Michael Tolkin

Directed by: Ben Stiller

Writers: Brett Johnson, Jerry Stahl, Michael Tolkin

Starring: Patrica Arquette, Benicio del Toro, Paul Dano, Bonnie Hunt, Eric Lange, David Morse etc.

Episodes: 8

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

Patricia Arquette as Tilly in Escape at Dannemora (Episode 1)

“Based on a true story” is a sentence we often find before many television dramas and feature films. It goes without saying that some are truer to their source events than others. The recent Oscar winner Green Book (2018), is a case in point, with the family of Dr Shirley quite rightly up in arms about the incorrect representations of family history on screen. Having said that, and despite the rather simplistic political rendition of race relations in said film, if I enjoy something I’m not bothered too much about historical accuracy. What one is after is a flavour and authenticity of truth. I accept that the truth should not get in the way of good drama and lets be honest Hollywood has never been frightened of downright fabrication to tell its tall tales. Obviously, one refutes ridiculous or incredible lies but ultimately, if you don’t like the bending of reality then stop watching films and television.

Based on the “true story” of a prison escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility, New York, during 2015, this superior genre serial is gritty and authentic and feels so real in the direction and performances it hurts. Whether it’s the truth is another story, yet what the writers and director Ben Stiller have delivered are eight episodes of cinematic television of the highest order. It begins and moves at a very slow pace establishing the aftermath of the main events, before flashing back and setting the scenes month-by-month of the personalities and their respective actions.

The first character we meet is Patricia Arquette’s brassy machine room supervisor, Tilly Mitchell. She’s bold and ballsy and dominates her relationship with husband, Lyle. Lyle himself, is portrayed effectively by Eric Lange as a tragic and loyal simpleton. Both of them are bad hair, big teeth and strangled accents, trapped by their class, work and lack of finance. While Lyle simply accepts his lot, Tilly is drawn to the prisoners she is meant to be supervising and ventures into illegal and inappropriate behaviour with the inmates. Arquette absolutely nails the humanity of a character who, in her fifties stuck in a dead-end job, desperately seeks attention and excitement. This makes her a hard target in such a masculine and testosteronic environment. However, she is more than happy to encourage and collude with said prisoners.

Prison dramas have always presented a fascinating way of analysing human nature and behaviour. The individuals are trapped in enclosed spaces and given many inmates’ proclivity to violence, they soon become a powder keg of fizzing egos and surging tension. Casting superb actors such as Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano in the leads was a masterstroke. Both are expert at playing complex human beings and one of the challenges for a writer can be to get empathy for characters that are imprisoned for violent crimes. Yet, the actors, writers and director all manage to balance the tension between representing antagonistic characters in a sympathetic light. Indeed, even though we know Del Toro’s Richard Matt and Dano’s David Sweat are dangerous criminals, the story really drags us into their painstakingly patient escape work. Each episode builds obstacles they must overcome, almost until the suspense becomes unbearable. Lastly, while Dano’s tunnel-vision determination moves them toward the light, Del Toro’s manipulative hard man controls both Tilly and David Morse’s prison guard, Gene Palmer.

Overall, this is a superior prison genre serial; virtually cinematic in its casting, direction, locations, setting and performance. It takes a familiar narrative of a prison escape but transcends the genre with Arquette’s, Del Toro’s and Dano’s incredibly human and believable performances. These are not likable characters and they are not even anti-heroes to root for. Undoubtedly, though the Showtime production delivers as compelling a character drama as you’re likely to see all year. Director Ben Stiller deserves credit too for delivering a consistently balanced body of work here. Known more for his comedic film output there’s a maturity to Escape at Dannemara which offers authenticity in character and setting. If Stiller and his writers have bent the truth in any way then it does not offend my sensibilities; in fact I openly welcome it when the outcome is as absorbing as this.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11

SIX OF THE BEST #15 – TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED EPISODES (1979 – 1988)

SIX OF THE BEST #15 – TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED EPISODES

Created by:     Roald Dahl

No. of series: 9 – No. of episodes: 112

Producer(s)    Anglia Television / ITV

Original release: 24 March 1979 – 13 May 1988

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

With its eerie opening theme tune and iconic dancing silhouette title sequence, Tales of the Unexpected, holds much nostalgia for me. In fact, it was one of my favourite shows I watched as a kid. Every Sunday evening I couldn’t wait for these short, sharp and sometimes shocking tales of: murder, revenge, adultery, gambling, addiction, blackmail, liars, con-artists; and generally twisted visions of humanity. Of course, the amusing consideration remains that the twist in the tales were generally always expected, making them paradoxically, not unexpected at all. However, trying to guess the twist was also part of the fun in watching.

The series was inspired by similar anthology narrative shows such as: Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone and Way Out; with initial stories adapted from the work of genius writer, Roald Dahl. The early seasons were also introduced by Dahl and while produced mainly in the UK, latter seasons had U.S. produced episodes too.

Other writers’ work would be adapted and the series became a staple haven for many famous actors too. These included: Susan George, Sian Philips, Jose Ferrer, Joseph Cotten, Peter Cushing, Janet Leigh, John Gielgud, Brian Blessed, Ian Holm, Joan Collins, Denholm Elliott, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Anna Neagle, Joan Greenwood, Harry H. Corbett, Timothy West and many more.

Over most of 2018, I re-watched pretty much every episode on SKY ARTS and so for this article I would like to choose six of my favourite ones. I’d say the latter seasons were probably not as strong as the earlier classics. Yet, I still loved most of them; even some of the more comedic and goofy ones. Finally, picking a favourite six was an impossible job, and I have limited the Dahl classics to just one. Here they are!

LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER (1979) – SEASON 1

A murdered husband, baffled police, distraught wife and a leg of lamb are the ingredients of one of the finest short stories I have ever experienced. Originally adapted for Hitchcock Presents, Susan George is excellent as the pregnant wife cooking up a special meal and murderous alibi twist.

THE FLYPAPER (1980) – SEASON 3

I was always told as a kid don’t talk to strangers for fear of abduction or harm and this episode deals with that theme expertly. The chilling tale from the pen of Elizabeth Taylor (not that one), finds an young girl drawn into danger from a seemingly unlikely source. The slow build-up of suspense, creepy performances and frightening end make it genuinely unforgettable piece of television drama.

THE BEST OF EVERYTHING (1981) – SEASON 4

Michael Kitchen is brilliant in this sharp, twisted drama as put-upon clerk, Arthur. His lowly beta male seeks the love of the boss’ daughter but is too broke to get her attention. Enter society-playboy Charlie Prince and Arthur finds confidence from his tutelage and connections. As the plot turns one way then another morality and fate catch out Arthur’s lofty aspirations and his dreams soon turn to dust.

HIJACK (1981) – SEASON 4

This brilliant story deals with a genre staple of an airline hijack. Very economical and full of suspense, it’s mostly shot in the interior of the cockpit as Simon Cadell’s Captain and crew are subject to a fear-inducing robbery. Cleverly plotted, this one even had me fooled with an audacious twist which really flies high at the end.

WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN UP TO LATELY (1982) – SEASON 5

I loved this episode because of the performance from Benjamin Whitrow. He is a bitter, unlikable, alchol-driven, misanthropic actor who verbally abuses his wife. When he bumps into an old acting friend the two share past memories and it’s soon revealed both are unhappy with their lives. Whitrow imbues, in a short time, a life of disappointment and human weakness, and his startling comeuppance is certainly deserving by the end.

SCRIMSHAW (1985) – SEASON 8

The U.S. produced episodes did not stand the test of the time very well, mainly due to the aged and fading 16mm film. Anyway, many of them could be classed as average but there was the odd gem. Scrimshaw was one such diamond in the rough, containing a haunting performance from Joan Hackett as an alcoholic barfly. One day she thinks her luck has changed when meeting an old wealthy artist friend, but that is far from the case.

Hackett’s performance stayed with me, especially the incredible shot at the end. When I researched Hackett’s name online wondering what she was up to now, I discovered she died in 1983 from cancer, aged only forty-nine. Released in 1985, Scrimshaw finds the audience literally watching a ghost, something I found completely unexpected.

IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADEPHIA – SEASON 13 REVIEW

IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADEPHIA – S13 REVIEW

Created by: Rob McElhenney

Developed by: Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton

CAST

Charlie Day as Charlie Kelly
Glenn Howerton as Dennis Reynolds
Rob McElhenny as Mac
Kaitlin Olson as Dee Reynolds
Danny DeVito as Frank Reynolds

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS, BITCHES!**

The thirteenth season of one of my favourite sitcoms arrived on Netflix in early January. With a mixture of joy and sadness I eagerly binged another ten episodes of the most scurrilous and offensive comedy shows of recent years. The sadness was mainly due to the fact that Glenn Howerton’s Ted Bundyesque character, Dennis, had seemingly been written out of the show. However, it turned out he was in many of the episodes so joy soon prevailed.

If you haven’t seen It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – THEN WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU! No, seriously, it is one of the darkest, funny and absurd shows I ever seen. It is the anti-christ of sitcoms and a black anathema to the Friends template. It concerns five individuals who congregate a bar in Philadelphia called Paddy’s and basically follows them as they fuck each other and those around them over. It may not sound like it but it is comedy gold. Further, it’s also pretty smart in satirising zeitgeist issues relating to race, gender, politics, friendships, sport, addiction, crime family and sexuality. It is quite often shocking but not just for shock’s sake. There is a mean streak of intelligence running throughout the show.

I would have to say that Season 13 did not hit the heights of prior seasons. The main reason is that Glenn Howerton’s appearances, while very funny, seemed to impact the consistency of the show. There was an uncertainty and feeling he was only available for a certain time during filming and this was felt in the season as a whole. Also, one could argue the writing was not as sharp as prior seasons. Nonetheless, the show had some brilliant and pointed episodes. My favourites were: The Gang Beats Boggs: Ladies Reboot which both called back to a prior “drinking game on a plane” episode and satirised the drive by Hollywood for all-female ensemble remakes such as Ghostbusters. The Gang Gets New Wheels episode was also brilliant. Here the status symbol of car ownership was mocked as Dee finds herself elevated socially due to her new vehicle. Safe to say her new found popularity is ruined by her own narcissistic and obnoxious character choices.

The season takes joy in referencing the #MeToo and Time’s Up furore, the Eagles Superbowl win, Gay Pride, Escape Rooms, Sex Dolls and lampooning films such as: Home Alone and Inception. The latter becoming a hilarious meta-textual delight in the episode, The Gang Does a Clip Show. By the thirteenth episode, Mac Finds His Pride, I had thoroughly enjoyed the scatter-gun chaos of the season. Yet it was still not enough to prepare me for the incredible final sequence, which found Rob McElhenney performing a contemporary dance sequence of some skill and beauty. While it did not necessarily make me laugh it, like the show as a whole, kept me hooked and surprised throughout.

Mark: 9 out of 11

TO BOLDLY REVIEW #4 – STAR TREK – THE ANIMATED SERIES

STAR TREK – THE ANIMATED SERIES (1973 – 1974)

Created by: Gene Roddenberry

Directed by: Hal Sutherland (S1) and Bill Reed (S2)

Starring voices of: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Majel Barrett

Executive producers: Gene Roddenberry, D.C. Fontana

Production: Filmnation Norway, Paramount TV Service

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

Running for a mere 22 episodes four years after the original Star Trek series was cancelled, the animated series can be seen as an unofficial fourth season to the live action show. While the animation was cartoon-like and rudimentary compared to the incredible CGI animation we have today, the scripts and stories were actually very sound. Many of the original cast members lend their voices too, so the show is not a mere cheap cash-in. Moreover, the stories featured the U.S.S. Enterprise boldly exploring space and beyond, capturing the dramatic essence of the original show.

While it was short-lived there some fantastic episodes in the animated series. The animation allowed for more expansive and weird-looking alien creatures, especially as the make-up and effects budgets would not be stretched as on the live action show. Some curiosities I noticed while watching were the inclusion in one episode of the “holodeck” or rec room. Plus, Kirk also referred to himself, rather weirdly, by his full name James Tiberius Kirk.

Many of the episodes had strong emotional and science fiction concepts. Although, given the twenty-four minute running time of each they often felt rushed to conclusion. Indeed, some of the stories could fit a feature film no problem and perhaps the recent reboot could have looked at some as a starting point; perhaps they did? Overall, I enjoyed the show but was surprised to read it won an Emmy in 1975 for Outstanding Entertainment – Children’s Series. Then again, it was certainly smarter than your average Hanna Barbera cartoon.

Of the twenty-two episodes I would say my favourite FOUR were:

Yesteryear (S1 – Ep. 2)

Spock must travel to the past to rescue his younger self from danger.

The Time Trap (S1 – Ep. 12)

The Enterprise and a Klingon battlecruiser are drawn into a space vortex and end up in a timeless dimension.

The Jihad (S1 – Ep. 16)

Kirk and Spock are summoned to retrieve a holy artefact which could ignite a galactic war.

The Counter Clock Incident (S2 – Ep. 6)

An unusual spaceship pulls the Enterpirse into a negative universe where time flows backwards.

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND (2018) – HBO / SKY TV REVIEW

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND (2018) REVIEW

Based on: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Directed by: Saverio Costanzo

Written by: Elena Ferrante, Francesco Piccolo, Laura Paolucci, Saverio Costanzo

Starring: Elisa Del Genio, Ludovica Nasti, Gaia Girace, Margherita Mazzucco, Anna Rita Vitolo, Luca Gallone, Imma Villa, Antonio Milo, Alessio Gallo etc.

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

Image result for my brilliant friend

The quality of Italian produced TV dramas in recent years has been spectacularly high. I devoured three bloody seasons of the macho-gangster brutality of Gomorrah (2014 – 2017) with both shock and enthusiasm. I subsequently imbibed avidly the magisterial and philosophical depth of Paulo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope (2016). Thus, expectations were equally raised by HBO’s production of My Brilliant Friend; my confidence eventually rewarded with a moving, fiery, sensual, violent and intelligent drama about friendship and family rivalries.

Based on the first of four Neapolitan novels written by Elena Ferrante, the drama charts the lives of various families who inhabit a 1950s Naples neighbourhood. It’s a traditionally working class environment, set amongst run down blocks with cars travelling along dusty roads which lead to the city, country or sea. While encompassing a large ensembel cast, the story focusses on two specific characters: “Lenu” Greco and “Lilu” Cerullo. Forging a powerful friendship in their primary school years, the narrative unfolds over a ten-year period until they are sixteen. Their lives become entwined in family dramas, fights, romances and death, as both characters rival and connect with each other and those in the neighbourhood.

Image result for my brilliant friend

Class differences underpin the various plots and sub-plots with Lilu displaying incredible academic acumen but held back as her family are too poor to send her to school. Galvanised by competition Lenu pushes herself to get ahead of her friend and despite such division the two are drawn together when facing seemingly insurmountable emotional odds. As such, their friendship and loyalty toward each other drives the story powerfully. Lilu, while contrary and irritating at times, is passionate and principled, while Lenu is more passive and demure. Yet, together they form a resilient whole.

The performances from the cast are brilliant, while the production overall is a thing of beauty. Max Richter’s score is sumptuous and haunting, with the era, setting and locations all wonderfully evoked. But it’s not nostalgia for happier times, rather an honest examination of humanity and rites of passage struggle through puberty and into adulthood. While the sun shines brightly in Naples, these are ultimately hard times. The many stories unfold in sand-hit tenement blocks where men, women and children struggle to make ends meet. Moreover, the show prefaces sisterhood as a means to overcome the misogyny and sexual exploitation of the era.

Toxic masculinity dominates throughout, with men represented as either: sexual predators, gangsters, wife-beaters and Catholic Priests. There are some positive male role models and there is a whiff of solidarity in the air as Communist doctrine is presented; however, there is no escape for the working classes other than to die or struggle onwards. Lastly, the only way out for Lenu and Lilu is sticking and fighting together; educating themselves academically and emotionally to grow and gain the experience necessary to cope with the slings and arrows of Neapolitan life.

Mark: 9 out of 11

BANDERSNATCH (2019) – BLACK MIRROR / NETFLIX REVIEW

BANDERSNATCH (2019) – BLACK MIRROR REVIEW

Directed by: David Slade

Produced by: Russell McLean

Written by: Charlie Brooker

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Will Poulter, Asim Chaudhry, Craig Parkinson, Alice Lowe etc.

**SPOILER FREE**

Image result for bandersnatch

Choices, choices, choices! We all have so many choices to make every day. Some simple; some much tougher. We didn’t have any choice over whether we were born, but now we are here there’s a myriad of daily selections we get to make. Do we get out of bed? Do we eat? Do we wash? Do we find the strength to get in our car or on the train and face the horrors of employment? Do we engage with violent abandon by calling the driver who cut us up at a roundabout, “a wanker!” Do we wear our clean underwear today or re-use yesterdays? Do we have a salad or burger for lunch? Do we start smoking again? Do we regret having children? Do we tell our partner we love them? Do we have the last beer in the fridge? Do we try and change our life? Do we just give up? Do we watch the new drama box-set or a Netflix special by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker. So many tough choices!

Thus, you’ve had a shitty day with so many choices made and you sit down in front of the television in the hope you can switch off your brain. But that darned Brooker won’t let you. The televisual provocateur and his production team are cruelly requesting, for your entertainment, that you make MORE choices. If you’re young enough to remember those: “Go to page 47 to see if your spell vanquished the demon – or go back to page 666 to find out if you are the conqueror of the Universe”, type books, then Bandersnatch is THAT in television form. You may also be used to multiple choice computer games the likes of which I played myself as a kid on the Spectrum 128k computer. This is also the inspiration for Brooker’s twisted vision. But is it any good? I would choose YES! Bandersnatch is dark, hallucinatory and involving “fun”.

Image result for bandersnatch

The story/stories are set rather aptly in 1984. Our main protagonist is a grieving and troubled teenager, Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead). Stefan is obsessed by a “choose your adventure” book called Bandersnatch.  Inspired to turn it into a computer game, he soon descends down a veritable black hole mentally, physically and emotionally. The fact that we are vicariously responsible for the characters’ journey create a real sense of dread, doubt and suspense. It’s very clever and immersive and no doubt the writing of it must have been a tortuous process.

While it may not be for some I was engrossed by the show as it felt at times I was living in a Philip K. Dick story. Dick’s novels are often hallucinatory and dream-like with simple yet devastating prose. They deal with reality, alternative reality and beyond reality. You’re often in a place with unreliable narrators or confused protagonists who are existing in some real world, imagined or manufactured nightmare. Paranoia, anxiety and depression infect Dick’s world and Brooker captures that vibe brilliantly in Bandersnatch. However, it’s not also without humour too, albeit incredibly dark sarcastic humour.

Brooker and his filmmaking team achieve a style over substance triumph with Bandersnatch. I have only gone through Stefan’s narrative once but it gripped me from start to finish as an experience. The drained, urban and suburban 1980s colour and council-estate-grey look suited the psychotic breakdown of the main character. Nonetheless, at times, the dizzying twist of choices did take away from the emotional journey of the character. At one point I was so in the meta-hole the whole trip made me feel quite queasy. Having said that, I will be going back into this meta-adventure again; after all, the choices like in life seem endless.

Mark: 9 out of 11