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HBO TV REVIEW – THE OUTSIDER (2020) – Stephen King's novel is given an impressive HBO going over!

HBO TV REVIEW – THE OUTSIDER (2020)

Developed by Richard Price – based on Stephen King’s novel

Writers: Dennis Lehane, Jessie Nickson-Lopez, Richard Price

Directors: Jason Bateman, Andrew Bernstein, Igor Martinovic, Karyn Kusama, Daina Reid, J.D. Dillard, Charlotte Brandstrom

Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Bill Camp, Cynthia Erivo, Jason Bateman, Jeremy Bobb, Julianne Nicholson, Mare Winningham, Paddy Considine, Marc Menchaca, Max Beesley, Derek Cecil, Yul Vazquez etc.

Original Network: HBO

No. of Episodes: 10

*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***


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When I first saw this advertised, I thought finally, someone has adapted Albert Camus’ classic existential novel, The Outsider. When I saw it was from HBO, I was even more stoked. However, I then realised it was actually a story developed from a recent novel by uber-writer, Stephen King. Nonetheless, my enthusiasm was not curbed or curtailed. Because lord does King certainly know his way around a crime and horror tale. Moreover, with character actors such as Ben Mendelsohn, Bill Camp, Paddy Considine, Mare Winningham and Jason Bateman in the cast, plus star-in-the-making Cynthia Erivo also in the mix, I knew this had to be good. Thus, it proved.

It goes without saying that being a HBO production this is a high quality rendition of Stephen King’s novel. The director of the first two episodes, Jason Bateman, brings the dark finish, tone and experience garnered from his superlative work on Netflix’s brilliant series, Ozark. Bateman is also cast as the main murder suspect, Terry Maitland, and he so metronomically good in the role. In a gripping opening episode Maitland is arrested for the murder of a local boy, Frank Peterson. The investigation is lead by Cherokee City detective, Ralph Anderson; an emotionally hollowed cop superbly portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn. Maitland protests his innocence, and when his ebullient attorney — the ever-impressive Bill Camp — shows he has a cast iron alibi, the narrative takes a decidedly strange turn.


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Firstly, as I have alluded to, this must be one of the best casts assembled in a television show since, well, the last HBO series produced. Further, grandmaster screenwriter, Richard Price — who also co-adapted the superb The Night Of (2016) for HBO — has spring boarded King’s original brilliantly. Price and his co-writers fully flesh out a series of fascinating characters and a community ripped apart by a black monster lurking in the shadows. Indeed, grief and heartache stain the eye of this drama as death hangs heavy over the humans of this closeknit town.

The Outsider (2020) is so confident, we are not even introduced to another of the major assets of the series in Cynthia Erivo’s investigator, Holly Gibney, until the third episode. While the ‘Outsider’ of the title could be referring to the killer, Gibney’s character is very much an idiosyncratic loner too. Whether she is on the spectrum, it is not revealed. However, irrespective of her lack of social skills, she has an incredible memory, powerful determination and prodigious logic. Erivo, as Gibney, gives a masterclass of a performance radiating empathy, heart and fierce intelligence throughout.

Finally, some may feel the HBO series moves too slowly in the middle episodes, following the thrilling opening ones. However, I was engrossed in the methodical unravelling of the exposition to the audience. As Gibney discovers the true horror of the mystery then so do we. Stephen King has always been a genius at creating eerie suspense and this story is no different. I was pleased that this vision avoided the more hysterical supernatural elements which have blighted lesser King adaptations. Yet, while it is subtle in delivery, the show isn’t without a number of explosive moments, especially during a bullet-fest of a shootout in the final episode. Overall though it’s the creeping dread I felt while watching The Outsider (2020), that I’ll remember most. It’s the stuff of nightmares you see; and at times I was seeing more than double.

Mark: 9 out of 11


THE CINEMA FIX PRESENTS – TWELVE FAVOURITE TV SHOWS OF 2019!

THE CINEMA FIX PRESENTS – TWELVE FAVOURITE TV SHOWS OF 2019!

Bit late with this one, but following on from my twelve favourite films of 2019, here are the twelve favourite television shows I watched. I must admit I am still way behind on many AMAZON shows and don’t have APPLE TV+ or DISNEY +, so there’s probably loads of good TV stuff I have missed. For comparison I include last year’s favourites here:

FAVOURITE TWELVE TV SHOWS OF 2018

  • Atlanta (2018) – Season 2 – Fox
  • Billions (2018) – Season 4 – Showtime / Sky Atlantic
  • Black Mirror (2017) – Season 4 – Netflix
  • Bodyguard (2018) – BBC
  • The Deuce (2018) – Season 2 – HBO – Sky Atlantic
  • The Handmaid’s Tale (2018) – Season 2 – Hulu / Channel 4
  • Inside No. 9 (2018) – Season 4 – BBC
  • Killing Eve (2018) – Season 1 – BBC
  • Patrick Melrose (2018) – Showtime / Sky Atlantic
  • Vanity Fair (2018) – ITV
  • A Very English Scandal (2018) – BBC

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FAVOURITE TWELVE TV SHOWS OF 2019

Now, this was TOUGH! Television productions just got better and better! I cannot believe I had to leave the following off the list. Yet, here are the honourable mentions: Afterlife (Season 1), Billions (Season 4), Black Mirror (Season 5), Euphoria (2019), Ghosts (2019), The Handmaid’s Tale (Season 3), Line of Duty (Season 5), The Loudest Voice (2019), My Brilliant Friend (2018), Ozark (Season 2), Stranger Things (Season 3); and the baffling genius of Watchmen (2019). But I decided to limit myself to twelve favourite shows and here they are:


CHERNOBYL (2019) – HBO / SKY ATLANTIC

“… an incredible TV drama. This tragic event teaches us to never take anything for granted. We have built our own gallows.”


DARK (2019) – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX

“… confused in a good way and totally immersed in the Tenebrae. You will be lost — searching for the light — yet you will be astounded too .”


ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA (2018) – SHOWTIME / SKY ATLANTIC

“… These are not likeable characters, but the Showtime production delivers as compelling a character drama as you’re likely to see all year.” 


FLEABAG (2019) – SEASON 2 – BBC

“… Waller-Bridge takes familiar themes and situations and spins comedic and dramatic gold from them. Deserves all the praise and awards going.”


FOSSE / VERDON (2019) – FX / BBC

“… If you’re interested in the life and work of Fosse and Verdon then you will absolutely love this warts and all biopic. Rockwell and Williams are incredible.”


GAME OF THRONES (2019) – SEASON 8 – HBO / SKY ATLANTIC

“… despite the incredibly disappointing final episode, it was all about the journey rather the final destination. Winter has come and winter has gone and it’s one I will never forget!”


IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA (2019) – SEASON 13 – FX / NETFLIX

“… The season takes joy in referencing the #MeToo and Time’s Up and Inception. The latter becoming a hilarious meta-textual delight. By the thirteenth episode, I had thoroughly enjoyed the scatter-gun chaos!”


MINDHUNTER (2019) – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX

“… with gripping narratives, great direction, memorable performances and the production team’s accurate eye for period detail in mind, I just did not want the latest season of to end.”


SUCCESSION (2019) – SEASON 2 – HBO / SKY ATLANTIC

“… Ultimately, this is Shakespearean television of the highest quality. Succession (2019), is what we would get if Billy Wilder did TV.”


UNBELIEVABLE (2019) – NETFLIX

“… thoughtful, suspenseful and, at times, heartfelt drama. It highlights the shocking nature of sexual crimes against women and the very different ways police departments handle such situations.”


THE VIRTUES (2019) – CHANNEL 4

“… a more individual focused, personal and painful character study. Stephen Graham is absolutely amazing as the character of Joseph.”


WHEN THEY SEE US (2019) – NETFLIX

“… Beautifully written, acted and directed, this is an incredible work of television. It combines both a fascinating style and a brutal vision of the struggle of these characters experience.” 


HBO TV REVIEW SUCCESSION (2019) – S2 – EASILY ONE OF THE BEST TV SHOWS OF 2019!

SUCCESSION (2019) – SEASON 2

Created by – Jesse Armstrong

Writers – Jesse Armstrong, Jon Brown, Jonathan Glatzer, Anna Jordan, Mary Laws, Georgia Pritchett, Tony Roche, Susan Soon He Stanton, Will Tracy

Directors: Kevin Bray, Becky Martin, Mark Mylod, Andrij Parekh, Robert Pulcini, Matt Shakman, Shari Springer Berman

Executive Producers: Ilene S. Landress, Kevin Messick, Frank Rich, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Jesse Armstrong

Producers: Regina Heyman, Dara Schnapper

Cast: Hiam Abbass, Nicholas Braun, Brian Cox, Keiran Culkin, Peter Friedman, Natalie Gold, Holly Hunter, Danny Huston, Cherry Jones, Matthew MacFadyen, Alan Ruck, Parker Sawyers, Sarah Snook, Fisher Stevens, Jeremy Strong, Rob Yang etc.

Composer: Nicholas Britell

Original Network: HBO

**CONTAINS SEASON ONE SPOILERS**



“So, someone’s getting shit-canned. Let’s get the party started.” — Roman Roy


If you haven’t watched HBO’s Succession (2018-2019), then I urge you to do so. It is genuinely one of the best television shows of the year. You can read my review of the first season here, but it’s safe to say Season 2, now all the characters are established and plots thickened, is even nastier, funnier, scathing, backstabbing and emotionally charged.

Succession may not appeal to everyone. If you prefer your television to be safe and heart-warming, then this is the antithesis of cosy Sunday night viewing. It’s a sickening watch at times; embarrassing and cringeworthy too. These rich capitalists and media players have more money than some countries, but they are driven to crave more. They want more money and more power! This power corrupts absolutely and for them greed is not enough. They are bored gods who having destroyed lesser humans turn on each other for sport.



The second season follows directly after the events of Season One. Waystar Royco’s uber-owner, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), has withstood a power challenge from his son, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong). He is under pressure now from external sources seeking to excavate a hostile takeover, plus he has to choose a successor to satisfy shareholders.

These situations, and Logan Roy’s attempts to buy one of his biggest media news rivals to bolster assets, initially drive the season forward. But, due to some brilliant writing, the series weaves many other story-lines into a web of twisted strands, all of which create humour, shock, grief, sadness and exhilaration. From Kendall’s attempts to recover from addiction to Siobhan’s (Sarah Snook) pursuit of power and Roman’s (Kieran Culkin) pseudo-Oedipal sexual dalliances, there’s all manner of turbulence for the Roy family. None more so than when — echoing the recent #MeToo scandals — historical sexual abuse in their Cruise Division comes to darken the company door.

HBO has spared no expense in this production, as we find ourselves in a variety of global venues including: New York, London, Dundee, Greece, Turkey and New Hampshire. Moreover, episodes structured around family get-togethers, business meetings, retreats, conferences, awards ceremonies and corporate away days are staged in beautiful and opulent locations. As the characters move from the boardroom to country houses to museums to super-yachts to beaches to trendy bars and off-Broadway theatres, you find yourself a tourist without having to leave the armchair.



Often you will get TV shows where a few characters will stand out as protagonists, but in Succession (2019), the writing, directing and acting is so good everyone stands out. It’s hard to pick whose acting is most impressive. But my favourites have to be Matthew McFadyen as Tom, the grovelling husband of Siobhan, and Jeremy Strong as Kendall. His ghostly performance, full of guilt and existential emptiness, is paralyzingly memorable. As well as the main cast, the production added a raft of incredible character actors such as Holly Hunter, Danny Huston, Fisher Stevens, Jeannie Berlin, Cherry Jones to name a few.

Ultimately, this is Shakespearean television of the highest quality. Succession (2019), is what we would get if Billy Wilder did TV. I haven’t even mentioned the incredible score by Nicholas Britell. The music soars and binds scenes of black comedy and blacker tragedy together with a searing complicity. As I said, the show may not contain the most likeable of characters, but, somehow, the writers, actors and production staff make you want to watch these monsters. Despite their wealth and venal ways, you’re compelled to rubberneck this coruscating humanity motorway pile-up presented as TV entertainment. The incredible dialogue alone makes it one of the best seasons of television I have seen in some time.

Mark: 10 out of 11



AUTUMN 2019 TV DRAMA UPDATE – REVIEWS INCLUDE: DARK (2019) – S2, EUPHORIA (2019), THE LOUDEST VOICE (2019) & THE HANDMAID’S TALE (2019) – S3 ETC.

AUTUMN 2019 TV DRAMA REVIEWS

Having finished watching all six seasons of the absolutely amazing series The Americans (2013 – 2018) at the end of the summer, I thought it prudent to try and catch up with some of the other television shows I’d missed or had on my planner.

It is becoming clearer and clearer that television, especially many of the shows from Showtime, HBO and Netflix, are reaching and surpassing cinematic quality. The budgets, writing, production values and casts are incredible. It’s been like this for a while, and long may it continue I say.

So, here are a collection of the excellent TV shows I have completed watching in the last month or so, with the usual marks out of 11.

**SPOILER FREE**



CITY ON A HILL (2019) – SEASON 1 – SHOWTIME / SKY ATLANTIC

This crime drama set in 1990’s Boston is essentially a combination of The Wire meets Ben Affleck’s cracking film, The Town (2010). Kevin Bacon and Aldis Hodge lead the cast in this always watchable story of cops and robbers. Bacon is especially excellent as the anti-heroic FBI agent, Jackie Rohr. Good performances, violent action and earthy Bostonian dialogue inflect this genre piece, which blurs the lines between the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

Mark: 8 out of 11



A CONFESSION (2019) – ITV

Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton and Siobhan Finneran are all uniformly excellent in this true crime drama. Set in Wiltshire, it follows Detective Superintendent Steve Fulcher (Freeman), as his investigative team search for a missing young woman. What follows is a series of compelling events which grip you throughout. Seasoned scriptwriter Jeff Pope delivers a meticulously researched screenplay that explores the emotional impact of criminal behaviour, and how police procedure effects justice for victims and their families.

Mark: 8 out of 11



DARK (2019) – SEASON 2 – NETFLIX

What can I say about Dark (2019) – Season 2? Well, for starters it is easily one of the best television dramas I have seen in a long time. It’s edgy, nightmarish, confusing, twisted and to be honest, virtually unreviewable. I say that because I don’t want to give away any spoilers but, trust me, if you like emotionally, structurally and artistically complex plots involving multiple characters, locations and timelines then this German thriller is for you. It had me confused in a good way and totally immersed in the tenebrae. You will be lost, searching for the light, yet you will be astounded too by the audacity of the writing and looping madness on show.

Mark: 10 out of 11



EUPHORIA (2019) – HBO / SKY ATLANTIC

Having recently watched Sam Levinson uneven but stylish low-budget crime drama, Assassination Nation (2018), I thought I’d give this big budget HBO U.S. drama a watch. The ensemble cast of mainly young actors are led brilliantly by the ultra-talented Zendaya. She portrays just-out-of-rehab, Rue, who battles drug addiction on a daily basis. Her new best friend Jules (Hunter Schafer) also has issues to deal relating to identity, sex and love. In fact, pretty much all the characters are fucked up somehow in this giddy, glossy, sexy, dirty and often shockingly dark profile of high school existence.

Mark: 9 out of 11



THE HANDMAID’S TALE (2019) – SEASON 3 – HULU / CHANNEL 4

Season 3 of the iconic Margaret Atwood literary adaptation, continues to play strongly with the emotions, the nerves and the heartstrings. Centred around the dictatorial and fascistic Republic of Gilead, the plight of oppressed woman such as June Osborne (Elizabeth Moss) and other ‘Handmaid’s’ is a grim mix of tense drama and suffocating horror. Having said that, misery has never looked so beautifully shot as Moss’ performance and the cinematography are both exquisitely framed. The narrative is slightly slow in delivery, yet as June finds strength in rebellion and civil disobedience, you’re never too far from startling turns of violence and empowerment within the narrative.

Mark: 9 out of 11



THE LOUDEST VOICE (2019) – SEASON 1 – SHOWTIME / SKY ATLANTIC

I don’t tend to watch the news as it’s all quite depressing. However, I was drawn to this drama about Fox News and its’ leader, Roger Ailes, because it features a great cast. They include, an unrecognizable Russell Crowe, Naomi Watts, Sienna Miller and Seth MacFarlane. The narrative covers Ailes starting Fox News for Rupert Murdoch in 1996, and subsequent global news events from then to the present. Crowe revels in his role as the monstrous Ailes, who advocates making Fox the number one news outlet on TV, by pushing his own agendas amidst sensational news storytelling. I have seen a few negative reviews for this show, but I really enjoyed it. As a profile of a big, corporate predator who preyed on those around him, it was both sickening and enthralling at the same time.

Mark: 9 out of 11




HBO TV REVIEW -SUCCESSION (2018) – SEASON 1 – BRILLIANT SATIRE ABOUT RICH AR$£HOL£$!

HBO TV REVIEW – SUCCESSION (2018)

Created by – Jesse Armstrong

Writers – Jesse Armstrong, Jon Brown, Jonathan Glatzer, Anna Jordan, Lucy Prebble, Georgia Pritchett, Tony Roche, Susan Soon He Stanton

Directors: Adam Arkin, Miguel Arteta, S.J. Clarkson, Adam McKay, Mark Mylod, Andrij Parekh

Executive Producers: Ilene S. Landress, Kevin Messick, Franch Rich, Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Jesse Armstrong

Producers: Regina Heyman, Dara Schnapper

Cast: Hiam Abbass, Nicholas Braun, Brian Cox, Keiran Culkin, Peter Friedman, Natalie Gold, Matthew MacFadyen, Alan Ruck, Parker Sawyers, Sarah Snook, Jeremy Strong, Rob Yang etc.

Composer: Nicholas Britell

Original Network: HBO

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

“Money, money, Money! Must be funny! In a rich man’s world!” ABBA

Is it funny? In a rich man’s world? Or woman’s? Or anyone’s?

From my perspective I’ve never understood the desire for incredible wealth and power. Of course, it is great to be comfortable and have the money to feed, clothe and house yourself. But, that need and want to have extravagant things is beyond my comprehension. Obviously, if you’re born into money, it could be deemed unavoidable. Some may say it’s a curse. However, we all have choice as to how we behave whether we have money or not.

Personally speaking, I have everything I need to live. I have enough nice things. I have a car, television, mobile phone, computer, food, clothes, shoes, people I love and, at time of writing, my health. I have enough. For some enough is never enough. The extreme is only halfway. Ambition and power and wealth and greed drive them forward. Their desire for more has no limit.

Succession (2018), is another television show about the darker actions of the filthy, selfish and narcissistic rich. Similar, but far more poisonous than Showtime’s hit Billions, the narratives are driven by power games from the Machiavellian playbook. Set within a behemoth media conglomerate, Waystar Royco, led by octogenarian, Logan Roy (Brian Cox). the plots and subplots focus on the various family members and fucked-up personalities within this permanently dysfunctional family. The characters are not so much ‘Masters of the Universe’ but masters and mistresses of their own calamitous downfalls.

Is it funny though? In a rich man’s world? Well, based on Jesse Armstrong’s creation Succession (2018), it is! Unsurprisingly, from a writer who has worked on such comedy masterpieces as Peep Show, The Thick of It, Four Lions (2010) and Veep, these ten episodes contain some of the most biting and sarcastic dialogue and situations you could experience. It’s black though. It’s tumour humour. These are cancerous laughs which eat you from the inside. You’re entertained watching the programme but simultaneously aware of how accurate its’ dark vision of humanity, greed, power and family life is. No one gets out of here alive, including the audience.

The show bleeds quality from cast to production values to direction and not forgetting Nicholas Britell’s incredible score. You have to have a strong stomach to watch so many irredeemable and unlikeable characters all inhabiting the same space. But the writing is an absolute marvel with all manner of slicing one-liners which cut with scalpel like precision. The main narrative strands involve the children challenging their father’s running of the company. Watching Brian Cox viciously curse and do battle with them is drama of the weightiest kind; almost Shakespearean at times.

Lastly, I must say the acting is of the highest order. Sarah Snook, as political campaigner daughter, Siobhan, is destined for big things. British actor Matthew MacFadyen gives a nuanced comedic rendition as Siobhan’s fiancé; both sycophantic to the Roy family and a bully to company underlings. Kieran Culkin is sleazy and the most unlikeable of all, while Alan Ruck’s passive aggressive older son waltzes in and out of scenes with consummate skill.

As Logan Roy Brian Cox is well, just so Brian Cox; sweary, growling and menacing. His character locks horns most of all with second son, Kendall Roy. Portrayed exceptionally by Jeremy Strong, Kendall is a sad figure, attempting recovery from drug addiction, but cursed to desire to lead his fathers’ company. This leads to him making some incredibly dubious decisions. Because enough is never enough and that is the tragedy. In Succession, it is far from funny in a rich man’s world. It is sick, twisted and ultimately very black.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11

CHERNOBYL (2019) – HBO TV REVIEW

CHERNOBYL (2019) – HBO TV REVIEW

Created and written by: Craig Mazin

Executive Producers: Craig Mazin, Carolyn Strauss, Jane Featherstone

Producer: Sanne Wohlenberg

Directed by: Johann Renck

Starring: Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, Paul Ritter, Jessie Buckley, Emily Watson, Con O’Neill, Adrian Rawlins, Sam Troughton, Robert Emms, David Dencik, Ralph Ineson, Barry Keoghan etc.

Composer: Hildure Guonadottir

Cinematography: Jakob Ihre

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

The horror. The human error. The inhumane error. The terror. Meltdown during a safety test. Flaws in the system as ghosts envelop the machine. Science in a brave new world invents progress with which we venture into, only to find we are murdering ourselves.

The terrifying events which took place are chartered with grey, brutalist accuracy. Regular Soviet families live in proximity to a ticking time bomb; believing they are protected by the State. The State trusts the science. The science trusts men to follow nuclear procedures to the letter. But what of pride? What of targets? What price the desire to obsess and force a flawed system?

On that fateful day on 26th April 1986, the nuclear time-bomb exploded. Initially, it was believed it could be contained. The Soviet machine could handle the fallout. Heat. Water. Steam. Graphite. Fire. All conspire to create one of the biggest disasters ever perpetrated against nature.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster is well documented but for years the alleged truth was covered up. Death toll rose but official statistics stayed low. Naked miners, radiation sickness, blood, pus and falling hair. Style and look was natural and under-stated. Verisimilitude only heightening the horror.

Johann Renck directs with steely commitment from an incredible Craig Mazin screenplay. Jared Harris, Stellen Stensgaard, Jessie Buckley and Emily Watson lead a stirling cast of formidable character actors. The attention to detail in the HBO production is second-to-none. Thankfully the vicarious fear is palpable and I am able to view such events in the comfort of my own home.

We did this to ourselves but it could have been worse. When will humanity learn that we will bring about our own judgement on Earth. The Scientists led by Valery Legazov and composite character, Ulana Khomyuk, fought at length to contain and prevent this ever happening again. Who really believes it won’t? There are approximately four hundred and fifty nuclear power plants in the world. The threat hangs over humanity like a cancer.

I was at school in April 1986. Just sixteen years old. I saw events on the news. Historical dramas such as Chernobyl make real the fear that was there at the time. The site is still poisoned. The exclusion zone remains two-thousand and six-hundred square metres; uninhabitable for twenty thousand year, according to an online source. This event teaches us to never take anything for granted. We have built our own gallows.

1986. Former Soviet Union. Ukraine. Pripyat. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Disaster. Recovery. Suppression. Lies. Liquidation. Death. Suicide. Exclusion.

The horror. The horror.

Mark: 10 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