I love television and watched a lot of it last year on
most terrestrial and streaming services; especially the BBC, ITV, SKY and
NETFLIX channels. I must admit I am way
behind on many AMAZON and ALL 4/CHANNEL 4 programmes so will be rectifying that
this year. Indeed, there are probably some glaring omissions because of this.
For comparison I include last year’s favourite TV shows. This year I have not included South Park (Season 22) as it was not as good as prior years, despite clearly being one of the funniest shows around. Also, Doctor Who does not make my list as there were too many average episodes. Lastly, a special mention to The Walking Dead (Season 9), which at the mid-season break had somehow pulled itself out of the torpid decline that occurred around Season 6. It may make my 2019 list once the latest season has finished screening this year.
FAVOURITE 12 TV SHOWS OF 2017
BIG LITTLE LIES (2017) – HBO CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM – SEASON 9 (2017) – HBO FARGO (2017)– SEASON 3 – FOX / CHANNEL 4 GAME OF THRONES (2017) – SEASON 7 – HBO THE HANDMAID’S TALE (2017) – HULU/CHANNEL 4 IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA (2017) – SEASON 12 – NETFLIX LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN – 20TH YEAR ANNIVERSARY (2017) – BBC LEGION (2017) – FOX MINDHUNTER (2017) – NETFLIX SOUTH PARK – SEASON 21 – SOUTH PARK STUDIOS STRANGER THINGS 2 (2017) – NETFLIX THE YOUNG POPE (2016) – HBO
In my continued desire to avoid perpetual and dysfunctional alcoholism, while saving money and contemplating the meaning of existence, I often fill up my hours watching quality television dramas. Here are some reviews of shows I have caught up with over the last few months, with the usual Screenwash marks out of eleven.
THE ALIENIST (2018) – NETFLIX
Based on Caleb Carr’s best-selling novel of the same name, The Alienist, while feeling very familiar has enough style and acting quality to make it worth recommending. Set in the grimy streets of New York circa mid-1890s the period setting and production design exquisitely juxtaposes the filth and squalor of the underclasses with the opulence of the wealthy. Dakota Fanning, Luke Evans and Daniel Bruhl are uniformly excellent as an unlikely trio of “criminologists” who, on invite from the Chief of Police, investigate the ritualistic murders of young, poor kids in the ghettos. Adapted by, among others by the very talented Cary Joji Fukunaga, Eric Roth and Hossein Amini, this is overall a compelling, gruesome and hypnotic genre drama which entertains throughout its ten episode running time.
(Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
HIT AND MISS (2012) – SKY ATLANTIC
I missed this gritty drama the first time round from Sky when released in 2012 and it certainly pushes boundaries of gender politics within a genre setting. Created by the prolific British writer Paul Abbott it stars Chloe Sevigny as a hit-woman with a secret. Sevigny’s complex character Mia is in fact, a pre-op trans-gender person, living a lone-wolf existence working for Peter Wight’s fixer character. Her anonymous contract-killing life is interrupted when she is thrown into a surrogate mother situation and that’s when the real drama begins. This is not a programme for the faint-hearted with lashings of physical and sexual violence but the excellent cast, notably the outstanding Sevigny, drive this edgy mix of family and thriller genres with compelling power.
(Mark: 8 out of 11)
LIAR (2017) – ITV
This ITV drama is founded on the tantalisingly tricky premise of a “she said, he said” date rape case. It is to the testament of the writers, director and actors that the first three episodes provided absorbing suspense as to who is or who isn’t telling the truth. It begins with a primary school teacher, Laura, portrayed with nervy zeal by Joanne Froggatt, accepting a date with handsome surgeon, Andrew Earlham. They seem like a perfect couple but the following day Laura accuses him of rape. The drama comes very much from whether he is guilty and whether she has made it up. Star of Hollywood movies and US TV shows, Ioan Gruffudd, returns to British TV to play Earlham with a charming charisma which makes you question whether he could do such a thing. Halfway through the series though, the show becomes something altogether more sinister. Without wishing to give anything away I can recommend Liar for handling such a delicate subject well, while at the same time creating a powerful and suspenseful narrative throughout.
(Mark: 8 out of 11)
PATRICK MELROSE (2018) – SKY ATLANTIC
Oh, Benedict, Benedict! I love you so! Yet again I witnessed another masterclass in acting from Mr Cumberbatch as he shows all variants of emotional range in this high quality character study. The series is adapted from Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical books of the same name. Moreover, the structure is interesting in that each of the five episodes focus on different periods of Melrose’ privileged, yet tortuous, existence. We open with a drug-addled Patrick high on smack and then follow a frantic dash to New York to pick up his fathers’ ashes. Initially, Patrick is selfish, biting, wasted and full of fear and self-loathing. In fact he is not likeable at all. However, the first episode then delivers the gut-wrenching truth about the characters’ past and a truly harrowing event at the hands of his tyrannical father. The dramatic glue of the whole series is provided by Patrick’s memories of his fathers’ terrible behaviour – portrayed with rotten humanity by Hugo Weaving. Later episodes find Patrick battling addictions, his mothers’ negative do-gooding, starting a family and just trying to do what most of us do: hold it together emotionally in the face of the slings and arrows life throws at us. Full of complex emotional moments, brilliant acting and stinging one-liners, this is television of the highest order.
(Mark: 9.5 out of 11)
SAVE ME (2017) – SKY ATLANTIC
Written by and starring the magnetic British actor Lenny James, this urban crime thriller boasts an exceptional cast and addictive narrative. James takes a performance risk casting himself and a low-life chancer called Nelly, who is suddenly the suspect in the kidnapping of a daughter he hardly knows. Nelly is an ex-con-alcoholic-love-rat who gets by on his charisma and street smarts but still manages to aggravate those around him. When his teenage daughter goes missing he becomes an unlikely amateur detective, attempting some form of redemption having just signed her over to his ex-wife years before. The familiar kidnapping storyline kind of runs out of steam over six episodes, however, James and his brilliant cast including: Stephen Graham, Suranne Jones, Susan Lynch, Kerry Godliman and Jason Flemyng all excel. I also loved the gritty council estate setting and the authentic nature of the characters really drove the story forward.
Written by: Russell T Davies – Based on A Very English Scandal by John Preston
Starring: Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, Monica Dolan, Alex Jennings, Blake Harrison, Eve Myles, Patricia Hodge etc.
Composer(s): Murray Gold
Production Company: BBC
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
I’ve never been a fan of politicians. They are a necessary evil. Perhaps I shouldn’t blight a whole raft of people who may, in their hearts, believe they are trying to do well for their country. But, I just cannot help feeling there is something not quite right with someone who wants to be in control or lead or rule. I’m of the view that power does corrupt the individual and even though they may begin with great altruistic tendencies they will, ultimately, be poisoned by the job. Or worse than that they have sociopathic tendencies and the prestige of being voted in will feed their greed and lust for control. How does one explain the amount of wars and conflicts there are? Humanity is greatly flawed and the leaders of the so-called free world are more flawed than most.
But, what alternative is there to the capitalist system we have? Running a country and leading millions of various people must be tough; and difficult decisions must be made everyday. Many have tried the commune lifestyle and socialism has also led, in the Soviet Union and China for example, and, to dictatorial regimes replete with fear, repression and murder. Not that the West hasn’t had its fair share of Dictators and sociopathic leaders. General Franco in Spain is one such fascistic leader and our own Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, hiding within the illusion of democracy, crushed Union leaders, working class lives and whole industrial communities. As such, crooked and nefarious politicians are often a staple of film and television shows. A case in point is the BBC’s recent adaptation of John Preston’s book, A Very English Scandal.
This strange true life tale focussed on the Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe and his relationship with a troubled young man called Norman Scott. What first starts off as an illicit but touching love story soon becomes a desperate, twisted and darkly amusing black comedy of insane proportions. First off, Thorpe and Scott are portrayed with absolute brilliance by Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw. Both sterling film actors they bring gravitas, sparkling chemistry and humour to their respective roles; while Alex Jennings, Adrian Scarborough, Eve Myles and Patricia Hodge also excel in supporting roles. Furthermore, acclaimed director Stephen Frears ties the strands of Russell T. Davies brilliant script, expertly switching between comedy and heightened drama, without losing tonal control.
Set against the backdrop of English Parliament and the United Kingdom’s homophobic laws which outlawed gay sex, Jeremy Thorpe, is presented as an honourable man at first. He champions workers’ rights and lambasts the policy of Apartheid in the House of Commons. He has to hide his homosexuality though due to the oppressive legal system and the fact that, as a politician in the public eye, this would seriously harm his ambition to become Prime Minister. When he meets Ben Whishaw’s highly strung stable lad he immediately falls for him and they begin a secret affair. The relationship goes wrong and Thorpe moves on to become the leader of his political party, but an ever increasingly unstable Scott, just won’t go away. That’s when things begin to go awry for Thorpe. Scott won’t take a pay-off and Thorpe won’t give him the National Insurance Card, Scott hilariously demands.
So, like Henry II demanding, “Someone rid me of this meddlesome priest”, he allegedly, as per the script, takes a more sinister route. I won’t spoil it but the events which are presented are both funny and shocking and have to be witnessed to be believed. The privileged Jeremy Thorpe, garners some empathy due to having to hide his sexuality, however, his subsequent decisions to shut Scott down, as presented in this fascinating tale, are shown to be the actions of a spoilt, desperate and sad man wielding power over someone less fortunate. They say absolute power corrupts absolutely but as shown in A Very English Scandal it also leads to incredible poor decisions by individuals from the ruling classes. Indeed, the main reason I dislike and distrust politicians in general is they can and should afford to be better behaved and more compassionate than those they lead.
THE NETFLIX PARADOX: RANDOM THOUGHTS ON A MODEL including quick reviews of: ANNIHILATION (2018), BRIGHT (2018), MUTE (2018), OZARK (2017), and others etc.
I first subscribed to Netflix around four years ago when my Sky TV dish was out of action. Being a film and TV addict, Netflix was a godsend and easily fixed my desire for continuous viewing. It was cheap and had loads of older and not so older content including: drama box-sets, comedy, new film releases and classic cinema. Then, a couple of years ago Netflix decided to begin producing its own original content and many of the shows released have been excellent.
There’s SO many great shows to mention but programmes such as: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Black Mirror, Mindhunter, Breaking Bad, Making a Murderer, Better Call Saul, American Horror Story, Doctor Who, Stranger Things, Fargo, American Crime Story; plus the back catalogue of: stand-up comedy specials, documentaries, BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and US cable shows I’ve re-watched all make Netflix a brilliant virtual online video shop. In fact, given the amount of output I have NOT seen one might say there are TOO MANY shows with not enough time to consume them all.
Of late they have released a number of, what one would class as, proper cinema films such as: Okja(2017), Beasts of No Nation (2015), Cloverfield Paradox (2018) and many more. But rather than being given the chance to watch them on the big screen they have gone direct to the streaming platform. I think this is a shame as experiencing a film in the cinema can enhance the enjoyment. It cannot save a poor story yet it would be great to have the choice to see these films on the silver screen. I wonder how sustainable it is though. Surely a big budget film makes its profits from cinema-goers as well as subsequent DVD and BLU-RAY sales. How do, aside from subscriptions, Netflix make their money back on big budget products? And should I care? I probably shouldn’t worry at all. I’m just an ordinary Joe who at the moment is binge watching Mad Men and Star Trek (original series onwards) and only have to pay a tenner a month for the privilege.
Ultimately, the Netflix streaming model grows bigger and bigger and their model may prove revolutionary and make going to cinema a thing of the past. I doubt that but you never know. They once said sound wouldn’t take off and look what happened there. Anyway, enough of the random debate, during the last few months I’ve continued watching some of Netflix’ biggest releases and here’s a few quick reviews of said product with the usual marks out of eleven.
Alex Garland is a brilliant writer and his debut film Ex Machina (2014) was a stunning sci-fi character drama. His second film is an adaptation of a book by Jeff VanderMeer. In it a group of scientists venture into an apparent alien invasion in order to investigate a weird landscape called “The Shimmer”. Slow and meditative with flurries of monstrous action, Annihilation, was brilliantly made but Garland’s steady pace does the story no favours and I failed to connect with the characters or narrative. Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh stand out amidst an excellent cast but while beautiful to look at the film left me cold. (Mark: 7 out of 11)
BETTER CALL SAUL (2017) – SEASON 3
We are now onto Season 3 of Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s legal prequel to Breaking Bad and once again it proves itself a brilliantly written character drama. Still working under his original name, Jimmy McGill continues subtle battle with his big-shot lawyer brother Chuck, portrayed superbly by Michael McKean. With Jonathan Banks and Rhea Seehorn again provide fantastic acting support, this is always an absorbing watch as Bob Odenkirk again steals the show as the cheeky ducker-and-diver-lawyer. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
David Ayer follows up the almighty mess that was Suicide Squad (2017) with a kind of remake of his early millennial classic Training Day (2001). But rather than Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke doing battle with gangs and crooked cops we get Will Smith and Joel Edgerton doing battle with orcs, dwarves, elves and crooked cops. It’s a bloody weird mix of magical fantasy and buddy cop drama but I was pretty entertained by it all and Smith and Edgerton were worth watching despite the meshing of two unlikely genres. (Mark: 6.5 out of 11)
Duncan Jones’ directorial follow up to the disappointing Warcraft (2017) is another massive fail all round. Everything about it fails to entertain despite a cast including the brilliant Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux. Alexander Skarsgaard portrays an Amish mute hunting down his missing girlfriend in a futuristic Berlin setting. Aside from the pristine Bladerunner style visuals there is no real reason for the futuristic setting and the noir story just does not add up to anything in terms of drama, proving ultimately to be both illogical and in poor taste. (Mark: 4 out of 11)
OZARK (2017) – SEASON 1
This is a fantastic crime drama featuring an enthralling narrative and brilliant acting from both Jason Bateman and Laura Linney. 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. I won’t give anything else but this is up there with Breaking Bad at times with its violence, twisting plots and dark humour. Bateman, who directs many episodes too, is like a metronome of perfect delivery as his Marty Byrde flies by the seat of his pants staying one step ahead of: the local gangsters, religious nuts, the FBI and the aforesaid Cartel. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
THE PUNISHER (2017 – SEASON 1
Marvel’s latest TV offering in conjunction with Netflix suffers similarly to other shows in that it struggles to stretch the story over 13 episodes. Having said that, any show starring John Bernthal, literally bursts off the TV screen with machismo, crunching physicality and some sensitivity too. Set after the events of Daredevil (S2), Frank is off the grid trying to overcome the grief of losing his family but it’s not long before he’s battling military bad guys looking to finish him off. The script has some depth too as in delves into the horror of post-war stress disorder and those soldiers disregarded by society. Yet it’s Bernthal’s brutal performance that holds the interest through this very watchable series.
(Mark: 8 out of 11)
THE SINNER (2017) – SEASON 1
Starring Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman this expertly crafted six-part crime drama begins with a cracking opening episode that pulls you right into its grasp. Biel portrays Cora Tannetti, a mother and wife, who suddenly finds herself in the midst of a criminal investigation that threatens to tear her life apart. Pullman, the sympathetic police detective with dark secrets of his own, investigates the crimes and attempts to uncover the truth. This is a twisted tale full of sexual tension, religious fervour and sudden violence; and aside from one gaping plot hole it had me gripped throughout. Biel and Pullman are especially committed to their roles as the script, based on Petra Hammesfahr’s novel, goes to some very dark places. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
Of late I have been theming or focussing my viewing in certain directions. The last few months I decided to watch more ITV dramas. Historically ITV have arguably suffered in comparison to BBC dramas, and most certainly the big budget HBO, FOX and SHOWTIME programmes from the United States.
So, I thought I would check a few out and see if they are still the safe and formulaic ITV dramas I have seen in the past. Well, I would say, while adhering to certain genre conventions, notably in regard to cop stories and “true story” biopics, the writing, direction and acting is of an excellent standard. Here are some bitesize reviews.
This terrific police procedural drama begins with the death of a young boy and the subsequent police investigation, plus the impact this has on his family and coastal community of Broadchurch. The first season is first and foremost a terrific “whodunit” as various members of the town are all plausible suspects. Moreover, the brilliant acting duo of Olivia Colman and David Tennant spark off each other throughout the investigation. Writer Chris Chibnall deals expertly with the emotions too as the family – including Jodie Whitaker as the mother of the tragic child – are put through the wringer by the crime. The second season is almost as gripping as the child killer faces trial and Tennant’s character obsessively investigates a historical crime which blotted his career. Overall, it is an excellent drama with many twists and a superb ensemble cast of British actors. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
CHASING SHADOWS (2014) – Season 1 – ITV ENCORE
Reece Shearsmith is one of my favourite actors and I have loved his work ever since the grotesque comedy genius of The League of Gentlemen. Here he shows his range as a socially awkward but exceptionally determined Detective searching for long-lost missing people. Like Broadchurch it’s another Dr Who cast reunion as Noel Clarke and Alex Kingston also co-star in a decent by-the-numbers cop show. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
CILLA (2014) – Season 1 – ITV ENCORE
While there is an element of tragedy in regard to uber-manager Brian Epstein’s tragic death, this biopic of the early life of Priscilla White and her rise to stardom is pretty tame and fluffy. Still, Sheridan Smith is brilliant as the young songbird who would hit the top of charts with a series of late sixties ballads. The evocation of working class Liverpool and bands such as The Beatles is well played and the songs are belted out with a passion by the very likeable Smith. (Mark: 7 out of 11)
IN PLAIN SIGHT (2016) – Season 1 – ITV ENCORE
This is a very compelling 1950s set drama which tells the story of heinous Scottish serial-killer Peter Manuel. It benefits from an exceptionally good performance from Martin Compston as the devious killer; and also by Douglas Henshall as the Detective trying to catch him. Overall, a good drama which had me gripped throughout. (Mark: 8 out of 11)
JEKYLL & HYDE (2015) – Season 1 – ITV ENCORE
I really enjoyed this updating of the old Robert Louis Stevenson monster classic. Created by Charlie Higson it was over-the-top and frankly loopy at times with some occasional bad acting thrown in. In going for a 1930s-period-Bond-meets-Dr-Who-meets-Hammer-horror-mash-up it wasn’t always successful but overall it was fun entertainment. The cast all seemed like they were having fun and Amelia Bullimore, Enzo Cilenti, Natasha O’Keeffe, Richard E Grant were standouts while Tom Bateman was okay in the lead monster/man dual role. It’s just a damned shame the show got cancelled on a bloody suspenseful cliff-hanger. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
LUCAN (2013) – Season 1 – ITV ENCORE
ITV love a “true” story or crime stories based on real events and at the forefront of many of those are the excellent writer Jeff Pope. As Head of Factual Drama at ITV he has written and produced many fine TV programmes and this biopic of the infamous “Lucky” Lord Lucan case is also very good. Rory Kinnear is an impressive brooding presence as Lucan and Catherine McCormack also excels as his abused wife. We may never know what happened to Lucan but this drama attempts to shed some light on the ill-fated events from 1970s British society. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
MRS BIGGS (2012) – Season 1 – ITV ENCORE
Another narrative based on true events focusses on the 1960s Great Train Robbery and its aftermath from the perspective of Ronnie Biggs’ wife Charmian. Sheridan Smith is astounding as the long-suffering wife partner of Daniel Mays’ Ronnie. The acting all-round and writing are excellent as we find Charmian essentially falling big for the wrong guy. Her determination and commitment to Biggs was incredibly naïve yet admirable as she carried herself and her kids to Australia and Brazil in order to keep the family together. At no time does it glamorise the crimes as Smith and Mays prove an unlikely but testament to the power of love and the lengths one may go to because of it. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
SAFE HOUSE (2012) – Season 1 – NETFLIX
Christopher Eccleston, who is always reliable, stars as a retired cop who employs his Lake District property as a “safe house” for witness protection. The vistas are beautiful and the suspense is often palpable in this well written drama by Michael Crompton. Paterson Joseph provides excellent support as Eccleston’s former boss but the highlight of the show is under-rated British actor Peter Ferdinando, who portrays an obsessive criminal with sinister verve and pathos. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
SHETLAND (2013) – Season 1 – NETFLIX
Another detective show starring the impressive Scottish actor Douglas Henshall. This one feels old-fashioned but the stark contemporary Scottish settings work in its favour and interestingly enough it is an ITV produced show FOR the BBC. The characters are believable and Henshall’s police team are down-to-earth and likeable. Overall, the writing is pretty good with some gripping storylines while the slower pace adds to the drama and atmosphere. (Mark: 7.5 out of 11)
THE WIDOWER (2014) – Season 1 – NETFLIX
Reece Shearsmith stars again but as a weird sociopathic wife-murderer based on a real-life case. His modus operandi was to finagle himself deceitfully into women’s lives and then use their wealth to clear his debts. Sheridan Smith pops up in the first episode but Shearsmith’s Malcolm Webster later moves abroad to New Zealand to prey on other victims. Webster is an everyday monster and his actions defy belief that there would be someone so heinous; and Shearsmith gives a chilling performance. (Mark: 8 out of 11)