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Some of the best articles on the blog. Typically, these have a picture. It's a low entrance requirement, I know.


May 4, 2017

Review: American Gods 1x1 (US: Starz; UK: Amazon)

Posted on May 4, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

American Gods

In the US: Sundays, 9pm E/P, Starz
In the UK: New episode available every Monday 

By all rights, Neil Gaiman's American Gods is a novel I should have in some lovingly crafted Folio Society edition, situated in pride of place on my bookshelf or on a small shrine. Pagan gods? Check. American setting? Check. Neil Gaiman? Check and double check - after all, I spent most of my university days not just avidly reading Gaiman's comic book works, particularly Sandman, but looking like its titular character, too. This is basically a photo of my sister and me in the early 90s.

Sandman and Death

Imagine the confusion and fear among knowing bystanders when we met up.

And yet, somehow, American Gods passed me by. I've not read it; I've not even listened to any of the audio books of it. I don't even want to, despite very much enjoying Gaiman's work on Doctor Who and his novel (co-authored with Terry Pratchett), Good Omens. Odd, hey?

A new TV show, though - one co-showrun by the marvellous Bryan Fuller (Heroes, Hannibal, Mockingbird Lane, Pushing Daisies)? Maybe that's more my speed now?

So, sign me up, but don't expect comparisons with the original, only answers to the thorny question of whether it's a good TV show or not.

The story follows the fantastically named Shadow Moon (Hollyoaks' Ricky Whittle), a con serving a three-year prison sentence who's released days early when his wife is killed in a car accident. Trying his best to make his way home for her funeral, he encounters obstacle after obstacle, until he comes across conman 'Mr Wednesday' (Lovejoy's Ian McShane) and his luck mysteriously changes. Maybe that's got something to do with the leprechaun (The Wire's Pablo Schreiber) he also meets. At least, he says he's a leprechaun, but he's mighty tall, so Moon has his doubts. Probably not because of the height, though.

Discovering his wife wasn't quite who he thought she was, Moon is tempted by an offer of employment as Mr Wednesday's 'heavy', but before he even starts, he's discovering that Mr Wednesday has some very, very odd, very nasty, sometimes completely faceless enemies. 

And that's basically the plot of the first episode, which really isn't that inspiring a piece of work. Not much happens other than establishing that Moon is rather similar to Luke Cage in terms of personality, if a bit less indestructible and without half the charm or catchphrases. There's also little of the fantastical about it until the end, and what there is, largely doesn't work, Schreiber's leprechaun (who may be from Ireland. Or Russia) being an amalgam of stereotypes about Irish people being drunkards and fighters, rather than anyone liable to lead you to the end of any rainbow. I imagine that later episodes will be where we discover the rather important central conceit of the series that there's a war between New Gods (such as technology) and Old Gods (such as Odin) being waged in America. That sounds more interesting, doesn't it?

But there are some things that work. Ian McShane is obviously marvellous as the scheming Mr Wednesday ("Today's my day" - gosh, I wonder who he might be), but what really lifts American Gods out of the ordinary - at least at this stage - is the mise-en-scène. Hovering here in roughly the same orbit as season 2 of Hannibal (ie not quite as perfect as season 1 but not as far up its own arse as season 3), American Gods does have some truly lovely and sometimes disturbing visuals, as well as the equally unsettling, jazzy dissonance of Brian Reitzell's musical compositions. As it's on Starz, there's also quite a bit of the Spartacus gore along for the ride, too, with some blood tableaux that are often breathtaking.

Without those, there'd be little to mark out the show from any other piece of generic fantasy, though. There's almost nothing of Gaiman or Fuller's wit and wisdom in any of the dialogue and where it gets fantastical, it's often in ways that make you scoff rather than wonder. 

Gaiman says that a lot of the first episode is new but still in keeping with the book, so I'll give the show the benefit of the doubt for now and hope it gets better in later episodes as they return to the original text. There's also a top cast of guest gods due later on (Crispin Glover, Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Stormare, Gillian Anderson, Orlando Jones, Corbin Bernsen, Jeremy Davies), which should make that task a whole lot easier.

But this isn't the way back into either Gaiman's or Fuller's works that I was expecting. Still, maybe we shouldn't expect miracles.

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April 27, 2017

Review: Great News 1x1-1x2 (US: NBC)

Posted on April 27, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Great News

In the US: Tuesdays, 9/8c, NBC

Do you miss 30 Rock? Do you miss a Tina Fey-produced, screwball NBC comedy set behind the scenes of the world of television, perhaps even one written by Tracey Wigfield, who won an Emmy for her writing on 30 Rock

Really? Uh huh. Okay, that's interesting. No reason in particular I'm asking, really. Just a bit of a random questioning straight out of the blue, there. Bit odd of me, huh?

Meanwhile, on a completely unrelated topic, blasting onto our screens we have Great News which is a bit like that lovely movie The Intern, in that it sees a golden oldie mummy (My Big Fat Greek Wedding's Andrea Martin) deciding after the death of one of her friends to follow her dream by starting a new career. Coincidentally, that career is in TV journalism, just like her daughter's (Ground Floor/Undateable's Briga Heelan). Even more coincidentally, she ends up as an intern in Heelan's workplace, a New Jersey TV news show, where the already blurred boundaries between the mother and daughter's lives become even more blurred.

Ha, ha. Fooled you. All those questions at the beginning weren't random at all. I was talking about Great News there, too! Wasn't I cunning?

Indeed, Great News feels like one of those "format sells" to Germany, where a show gets remade more or less identically, except with a slightly different setting and a completely new cast. Some of the characters get changed a bit, some of the dialogue gets moved from one character to another, but otherwise everything stays the same. And in English, this time.

Nevertheless, despite the huge amount of overlap between the shows in terms of writing and cast, Great News not only still feels fresh, it also remains funny, with joke following joke like machine gun fire. Not every joke hits, but they frequently do and are invariably very funny. 

The format also mixes up the targets of the jokes. Whereas 30 Rock was all Liz Lemon's efforts to keep an insane black man and a narcissistic woman happy, giving us both racial and gender comedy, here the jokes are largely generational as well as familial. We have Heelan and Martin's mother-daughter relationship, lending itself to a lot of comedy about female neuroses; Martin's age also lends itself to jokes about oldies' abilities, both positive and negative.

On top of that, the stars of the show-within-the-show are a narcissistic aging white male newscaster (John Michael Higgins) and a terminally hip and stupid younger white female newscaster (the surprisingly good Nicole Richie). It's largely Martin's job to deal with Higgins, Heelan having to deal with Richie's idiocy ("How about we do our piece about Snapchap… on Snapchap?") while trying to advance the cause of serious journalism and her own career.  

The Alec Baldwin of the piece is boss Adam Campbell (Harper's Island), who's both a potential love interest and a frequent foil for Heelan. And as he's English, there are naturally jokes about that, too ("You Benedict Arnold!" "Benedict Arnold was the only one who wasn't a traitor in that war!").

I found the first two episodes to be both frequently laugh-out loud funny and actually funnier than the first episodes of 30 Rock itself, lacking the dramatic lulls that show did while it found its feet. Martin's obviously a hugely powerful and funny force, but Heelan's one of the few younger actresses who could hold her own against Martin and up for physical comedy as well - it's good to see her finally be the star of a show at last. The show isn't especially subtle, and no one's holding back with the acting, but it's frequently subtle in its unsubtlety ("Coming next - the hidden danger in your household's gun collection"), and the humour and performances often have odd beats that feel improvised, giving them more interest than normal.

My humour's a bit odd, but I think if you liked 30 Rock as much as I did, then I think you'll like Great News, too.

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April 26, 2017

Season review: Seven Types of Ambiguity (Australia: ABC)

Posted on April 26, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Seven Types of Ambiguity

In Australia: Thursdays, 8.30pm, ABC. Full series available on iView

What is truth? What is true for one person may be a lie to another; what one person thinks happened one way may have happened completely differently in another person's eyes.

What's also true is that this isn't a new idea, with Husserl and other phenomenologists questioning the idea of a universal truth as early as the start of the 20th century. Movies, too, have been great exponents of the concept of subjective truth, most notably with Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon.

Seven Types of Ambiguity is a really interesting exploration of similar territory to Rashomon, but set in modern day Australia. Based on the Elliot Perlman novel of the same name, it sees a young boy abducted from school, only for him to be found relatively quickly by the police. Oddly, he's unharmed and turns out to have been taken by the ex-boyfriend (Xavier Samuel) of the boy's mother (Janet King's Leeanna Walsman); in turn, his potential accomplice turns out to have a connection to the boy's father (The Slap/Secret City's Alex Dimitriades). Why did Samuel abduct the child? Was Walsman secretly having an affair with Samuel? Was Samuel stalking her for revenge? Or was there some other motivation altogether?

Over the course of the season of six episodes, the series follows the action from the points of view of various characters, each episode focusing on a different one. It starts with Dimitriades, then follows Samuel's psychiatrist (The Matrix/Lord of the Rings/V for Vendetta's Hugo Weaving), Samuel's neighbour (Crownies/Janet King's Andrea Demetriades), Dimitriades's best friend (The Slap/Secrets and Lies's Anthony Hayes), Samuel's lawyer (East West 101's Susie Porter) and ultimately Walsman, where all is finally revealed. But each episode is still really about one or more specific relationships and their ambiguities.

Tonally, each of these is different, with the first episode setting up the action and introducing us to the characters, the second giving us a portrait of a failed marriage, the third a look at Turkish-Australian cultural issues, the fourth almost an Ocean's 11-style comedy, the fifth a study in the pressures of being a working single mother, and the last a portrait in loneliness. While events in one episode lead into and sometimes overlap with events in others, Seven Types of Ambiguity makes it clear that what we see is only what each character sees: Walsman is cold and shut down from her husband's point of view in the first episode, substantially different in the final episode, while Dimitriades' perception of himself as easy going is undermined in the second episode as his simple exchange in the first episode with Weaving changes in the second episode to show he's far less generous, easy going and interested in other people than he thinks. 

The shifting nature of truth mean that although there are hints (and red herrings) in each episode as to what happened, as well as to whether Walsman was indeed having an affair with Samuel, it's not until the end that you're ever ultimately in a place to find out a version of the truth that fits the facts. And actually, while it's unexpected and initially implausible, that truth does eventually get earned; it also largely only feels implausible because it's nice. Indeed, while the conclusion is open-ended, oddly it's hopeful for all the characters, whose lives have all been changed largely for the better by the incident.

Despite Weaving being the biggest name in the cast, this is very much an ensemble piece, with Weaving only cameoing in episode one, merely guesting in the episodes other than his own. Each lead gets to shine at some point, too, although Weaving is the one who's really allowed to go to town, delivering some standout moments in his piece.

On the down side, there are a couple of European characters among the supporting characters (a German wife and an East European babysitter) who are pretty much close to hate speech in their depiction. The middle episodes also feel a little superfluous to requirements, their presence dictated purely by the format. However, they're still enjoyable in their own rights and do at least have something to say, as well as ramifications. 

I really enjoyed it. I hope you will, too. No word yet on a UK acquisition, although if Cleverman, Barracuda and The Code can make it over here, this should be a shoo-in.

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