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December 8, 2016

Review: Shut Eye 1x1 (US: Hulu)

Posted on December 8, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Hulu's Shut Eye

In the US: Available on Hulu

So I'm going to say it now and obviously you have to bear in mind that all my predictions are inevitably wrong, but just in case for once I'm not, I'd like to take credit for my incredible psychic powers this time: peak TV is unsustainable. 

You don't technically need to be psychic to work that out. Netflix's currently $3.1bn in debt in order to pay for all its original content and it's going to need an awful lot of subscribers paying $9.99 a month for a long time to break even on that. To be fair, it got $2bn in revenue in Q3, so maybe not, but that's Netflix. How about Amazon?

More so, how about Hulu, which is making shows like The Path, 12.22.63, Chance and The Handmaid's Tale willy nilly and you can't even watch it outside the US. And now we've got Shut Eye, in which Jeffrey Donovan (Burn Notice, Touching Evil) plays a Las Vegas magician turn shabby Los Angeles conman psychic who has problems with Gypsies (including matriarch Isabella Rosselini) who don't like the fact his sister, Leah Gibson (Rogue, The Returned) is using their tricks; his wife and partner in crime KaDee Strickland (The Wedding Bells), who thinks he's losing his mojo; and disgruntled boyfriends of his easily duped clients.

Now, obviously, Jeffrey Donovan is a good actor. But is he $175,000 an episode good? Probably not, but that's what Hulu's paying him. And if that's what they're paying him, you can bet pretty much everyone else is having to pay similar cash for similar actors, let alone the likes of Hugh Laurie and Billy Bob Thornton, who's allegedly getting $350,000 an ep for Goliath.

Something's got to give and either there are going to be a lot of companies who are going to have to get out of the content business soon or there are going to be some 'market shake-ups' (ie bankruptcies, mergers, acquisitions) in the next few years.

Again, you heard it here first.

Still, enjoy it while it lasts, since we might get some good TV out of it, at least. Is Shut Eye some of that good TV?

Almost. Certainly, Shut Eye is a good name for the first half of the show's first episode, since it's amazingly soporific. I was this close to switching it off and not bothering with a proper review of it.

But the show really gets its name from the concept of the mystic third eye, which when opened reveals all manner of wisdom and knowledge. Here, Donovan's third eye is shut until that jealous boyfriend gives him a kicking to the head halfway through the episode. Then, hypnotist Emmanuelle Chriqui (Entourage) tries to hypnotise him into wanting to partner with her and before he knows it, Donovan's inner eye is opened and he starts seeing the world beyond, including psychedelic peppers. And not just the future - soon, he starts to re-think his life and asking himself whether lying to everyone is a good idea.

That's more or less when the show starts to become watchable. How watchable, I'll let you know once I've got a few more episodes under my belt - Hulu's put them out all at once for a change - since although Donovan's very watchable and obviously knows from his Touching Evil days how to play brain-damaged sympathetically and accurately, the other characters are all unlovable scumbags who like to dupe others. The Gypsy side of things is pretty offensive, Donovan's the sole source of humour, and the crime's are all petty and the victims are all sad dupes.

That means that you're in it only for Donovan and how well he can put off increasing serenity and not being dark and glowery for a change. Who knows - perhaps he might really be worth that $175,000 an episode after all.

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November 24, 2016

Review: Search Party 1x1-1x2 (US: TBS)

Posted on November 24, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Search Party

In the US: Nightly, 11/10c, TBS

One of the conclusions of Adam Curtis' Hypernormalisation was that thanks to individualisation and the Internet, people are now more invested in the virtual world than the real world, making political solutions to problems all but impossible.

So now you've seen the documentary, here's the dramedy: Search Party. Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat is an aimless twentysomething, drifting through life without any real ambitions or interests of her own, it seems. But she's no different from shallow boyfriend John Reynolds, shallow gay friend John Early, shallow actress friend Meredith Hagner and shallow ex-boyfriend Brandon Micheal Hall, all of whom are more invested in texting, Twitter and selfies than anything real.

But then Shawkat spots a missing person's poster for a college friend who's disappeared and decides to investigate, perhaps in an effort to connect properly with someone else. Can she drag everyone else back into the real world with her to help her? 

Despite airing on TBS, whose motto should really be "We're occasionally funny, but never as much as Comedy Central", Search Party is barely a comedy at all; it's also a lot smarter than you'd expect, thanks to the likes of indie movie makers Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers (Fort Tilden, The Color of Time) on the writing team.

The show is in part a cry for self-involved millennials to reach out and connect - and it has some acute observations about how disconnected everyone now is. Reynolds would rather masturbate to his own fantasies in bed than have sex with Shawkat when she's right next to him. Neither of them know what to do when they hear sounds of domestic violence in a neighbouring flat, so they do nothing, even when glass starts smashing. No one remembers anyone else, unless there's an online record of their actions, and no one is willing to commit to anyone else if it draws them out of their bubble, their fear of the real world and real feelings is so great. Hagner even has to turn to a writer on one of her TV shows to ask for his advice on what an event in the real world might mean, and no one is that sure about what's real and what's not, anyway. After all, Hagner is an American actress pretending to be a fictional actress pretending to be a policewoman who works with another American actress pretending to be an English actress pretending to be an American policewoman. Can anything be trusted to be real or has everything been hypernormalised now?

But at the same time, the show is more complicated than a simple hippyish "why don't we all just reach out and touch someone to make the world a better place?" It has a New York-mistrust of others and strangers. When Shawkat reaches out to someone, they turn out to be crazy or aggressive; when Reynolds finally tries to help the abused woman living next door, she simply shrieks insults at him until he goes away. Even when Shawkat goes to the police for help with the missing girl, the police are equally atomised, unwilling to become involved in another person's life to help her, and Shakat, as with the rest of her peers, lacks the social skills to persuade them, instead resorting to insults herself.

The show is almost too clever, with metatextual references to Anna Karenina ("She dies at the end") and comments about how the search is often more interesting than the discovery are almost designed to put you off watching further. Yet at the same time, it's not clever enough. Like the oddly similar Girls, it gives you a set of pampered heroes and heroines you want to die a horribly fiery death. Unlike Girls, it has almost no wit or comedy to alleviate that desire, making it an almost Scream-like show, crying out at the loneliness of modern life yet not making the alternative look any better.

Search Party is an interesting idea that's as alienating as its characters are alienated. I don't want to reach out and join this party, I'm afraid.

November 17, 2016

Nostalgia Corner: Schalcken the Painter (1979)

Posted on November 17, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Schalcken The Painter

Making art history programming interesting, accessible and memorable is a tricky thing. Doing two of those isn't necessarily hard, but all three is tricky. 

For example, I watched all of Simon Schama's Power of Art, but while I found it very interesting and accessible, I can't tell you much about what our Simon said except that Caravaggio was very realistic and good with lighting. For me, it failed in actually educating me about art.

Dramatisation, which was one of Simon's tactics, can certainly help with making art history interesting and accessible, but there are few arts programmes that have gone as far as Omnibus did in using dramatisation to make it memorable, too. In 1979, the BBC arts programme included an hour-long drama about 17th-century Dutch painter Godfried Schalcken. What was even more novel about it and helped it to be memorable was that rather being a simple biopic, it was also a ghost story.

In common with Jonathan Miller's original adaptation for Omnibus of Whistle and I'll Come To You, Schalcken The Painter is not officially part of the BBC's long-running series A Ghost Story for Christmas. Yet not only did the episode air in the series' traditional slot of 23 December, vacated when the series was cancelled in 1978, it also fit in tonally, while still being an arts programme dedicated to exploring Schalcken's life and art.

Based on Sheridan Le Fanu's short story Strange Event in the Life of Schalken The Painter (sic) and narrated by Charles Gray as'Lefanu', the episode follows Schalcken (Jeremy Clyde)'s career from his early days as a pupil of Gerard Dou (Maurice Denham), one of Rembrandt's most famous pupils. 

There he falls in love with Dou's niece Rose (Cheryl Kennedy), but before they can be betrothed, a pale man called Vanderhausen (John Justin) comes to the door, offering a huge sum of money in exchange for her hand in marriage. Rose begs Schalcken to take her away before the marriage goes ahead. Does he? Well, you'll have to watch to find out.

Schalcken's ghost

Schalcken the Painter was directed by Leslie Megahey, the producer in charge of Omnibus, who had actually only accepted the job on condition that she could adapt Le Fanu's short story for the programme. Inspired by Walerian Borowczyk's Blanche, she shot the film in the style of a docudrama, using the absolute bare minimum of dialogue.

To meet the Omnibus remit, many scenes depict Schalcken recruiting models and posing them for his most powerful works, with Gray exploring the merits of each composition and how it might have derived from Schalcken's life and mental state.

The most important of these, ironically, is a fake - an adaptation by the production team of 'Young Girl With A Candle' in the style of Schalcken that starts and finishes the episode and purports to be the inspiration for Gray's narration.

Girl with a candle

(Fake) Schalcken picture

But Schalcken is not the only artist to feature. As well as Dou, Rembrandt (Charles Stewart) himself turns up to commission Schalcken. And the production team used the paintings of Vermeer, de Hooch and Dou to learn what interiors of 17th century Dutch domestic dwellings were like, as well to compose scenes.

Schalcken Interior

For the more frightening qualities of the story, they also took inspiration from both Schalcken's and Rembrandt's work and their mastery of darkness.

Darkness in Schalcken

Girl posing in 'Shalcken The Painter'

As a piece of art history, the fictional nature of the story obviously means Schalcken The Painter is flawed, particularly since its most enduring image isn't actually by Schalcken. But it's now probably more famous than Schalcken himself and certainly more people will have heard of him because of it than would otherwise have done. Certainly, I did.

Here's the first few minutes, but if you like it, as always, buy it (iTunes if you prefer)!

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