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September 13, 2016

Review: Better Things 1x1 (US: FX)

Posted on September 13, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Better Things

In the US: Thursdays, 9pm ET, FX

As you get older, you become more reflective. You look back over your life and all the things that made you what you are and that took you to your current place in existence. Often, you'll want to share your thoughts and ruminations with others, share those memories before they become like so many 'tears in the rain'. 

Frequently, however, this is far more interesting for you than for anyone else, who probably have their own stories and memories they enjoy far more than yours.

Better Things is a semi-autobiographical piece written by and starring Pamela Adlon, co-written by Louis CK. Adlon isn't a big name, unless you're a fan of either Grease 2 or Louis, but she's had a long career in show business, particularly in voice-over work. Indeed, you may recognise her voice more than her, since she won an Emmy for her performance as Bobby on King of the Hill.

Ever wanted to know what life is like for a 50-something single mother with three daughters, who's the daughter of a TV producer and who's an actress living in LA who goes to a lot of auditions and has to deliver a lot of bad dialogue in a lot of bad TV shows? I can't say I feel a desperate need to know myself, but maybe you're different, in which case Better Things will be a big help bridging that empathy gap.

Trouble is, it's not saying an awful lot that you won't have heard elsewhere. It's tough being a single mom; it's tough dating when you're older; it's tough having a teenage daughter; it's tough being an older actress. And so on. These are known things. Even the 'bad parenting' jokes have been done to death this year alone, in movies such as Bad Moms and TV shows such as The Detour. Maybe we need reminding every so often, but I'm not sure a multi-part comedy series on FX is the best way to go about it.

All the same, there are good things in Better Things, although that's more to do with some creative choices than the subject matter or anything especially interesting or funny that happens. Better Things isn't always linear storytelling, with time jumps backwards and forwards, dream sequences, inter-titles, TV shows within TV shows, cameos by famous actors, either as themselves (Julie Bowen from Modern Family) or as characters (Bradley Whitford from The West Wing). The autobiographical elements give the show a specificity and an accuracy that it might not otherwise have had, too, and there's some laughs to be had from Adlon's voiceover work. 

Maybe if you're facing similar issues, you'll find this funny in a gallows humour kind of way. Personally, I found it just a little bit too self-involved, a bit too much a female Californication but without much joy.

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September 1, 2016

Review: Four in the Morning (Canada: CBC)

Posted on September 1, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Four In The Morning

In Canada: Fridays, 9/9:30NT, CBC

Were it not for the awkward scheduling of aircraft, 4am would be a time long since lost to me. To be honest, staying up after 10pm is hard enough these days and if we make it midnight, we feel like we're as street as Idris Elba.

4am is a time for young people.

You can certainly tell this from Four in the Morning, CBC's new alleged comedy show, in which two young couples talk about the kind of things in the kind of way over-educated young people straight out of college do at 4am in the morning. 

An alleged piece of 'magical realism' - as clear a sign it's written by gits as if it had a purple 'BANTER!' logo stamped on its title sequence - it's little more just this horrendous chat, arch dialogue that's so self-satisfied, it probably thinks it's just solved the problem of world peace while simultaneously creating bons mots that will endure the aeons like granite. Characters with implausibly twattish names like 'Bondurant' ("A manically intense, always well-intentioned, singularly focused trumpet player") and 'Mitzi' monologue at one another and have Tarantino-esque conversations about conversations with psychic pigs. They talk about their love of jazz and quote at each other, while playing for one another's boyfriends or girlfriends, or grouching about the state of the world and their lives. They visit late night fooderies that sell gorilla meat and throw bricks through any number of apparently unsecured Canadian buildings' windows.

They do all of this without realising they're being incredibly annoying. Because ha, ha! They're young people.

The show, which has a 'micro budget' of CAN$300k per episode, feels like so much student improv, the kind of thing put on in so many fringe theatres to an audience of seven, mostly friends of the cast and crew. And to be fair, Four in the Morning is probably perfect for annoying, over-educated young people who love the sound of their own opinions at four in the morning.

But for everyone else, it's yet another Canadian comedy show that's terminally short on laughs.

August 18, 2016

Review: Baron Noir - season 1 (France: Canal+; UK: Amazon Prime)

Posted on August 18, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Baron Noir

In France: Aired on Canal+ in February/March
In the UK: Available on Amazon Prime

There can be few channels around the world as reliable as Canal+ when it comes to producing quality TV. Chances are, provided it sticks to French, any Canal+ series you watch is going to be HBO-good.

A case in point is Baron Noir, a remarkably prescient and impressive political series that is everything that Les Hommes de L'ombre (Spin) and Marseille should have been but weren't. Airing in France in February and March this year, but available in the UK on Amazon, the show somehow managed to anticipate both this year's Brexit and the Corbyn/Smith Labour leadership competition and relocate them to France, taking in all of left-wing French politics along the way.

And when I say 'all', I mean all.

The show is about the mayor of Dunkirk, Kad Merad (Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis), an old-school socialist who's spent years fighting (sometimes literally, with a baseball bat) for the poor, oppressed working classes. He's best friends with fellow socialist and presidential candidate Niels Arestrup (Un prophète, De battre mon cœur s'est arrêté, Quai d'Orsay), to the extent that he's willing to steal money from social housing projects to help fund his campaign. However, soon there are ructions between the two friends and before you know it, Merad and Arestrup - both sometimes helped, sometimes hindered by new-wave technocrat Anna Mouglalis (Romanzo Criminale, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky) - are pulling strings and levers behind the scenes of French politics to block each other and further their own, the party's and the country's interests, all while trying to avoid ending up in prison through Mutually Assured Destruction.

While the opening episode of the show gives the impression that this is going to be a show about corruption - and certainly that is an element - most of the first season is about political dirty-tricks and manipulations at every level of politics: everything from how to disrupt a local council election through how to manipulate the media and use party rules to counter your enemy's plans through manipulating the Assemblée nationale all the way up to the EU and how to play it off against your own national interests by threatening to leave it to 'ensure your country's sovereignty'. Advised behind the scenes by real-life French politicians, it's a real eye-opener, not least because it actually manages to film inside the Palais Bourbon itself, but also because of the differences between French and British politics - it's a long time since anyone had to take Troskyites and communists seriously here. Well, it used to be, anyway.

If Baron Noir has a message, it's that there are no friends in politics yet if you do screw over your friends in the short-term, chances are that things will go badly for you in the long-term - you just have to know how to balance all the options and bring people back on side. Merad spends most of the season in a whirl of plots and counter-plots, playing one person against another, usually with their knowledge, often by giving inspiring speeches about the left and the need to look after the oppressed/fight the National Front - think Jeremy Corbyn if he had charisma and leadership skills.

Beautifully shot and acted with some cracking music, the show nevertheless isn't without flaws. Merad is implausibly attractive to women of all ages and there's one relationship involving him where not only the audience but the couple themselves are surprised it's taking place at all. It also meanders a little, dropping interesting plotlines and characters, and focusing too much in later episodes on that housing project, which so dominates the first episode. For English speakers, there's also the subtitling, which starts off fine but starts to lose it a little mid-season, such as by switching the French-Algerian's Mercad's reason for entering politics from helping 'les Arabs' to helping 'minorities' and frequently taming down some of the more interesting, fruitier language (it's a real tragedy that the marvellous 'putain ville de merde' ends up as 'this town sucks', for example).

But if you want a House of Cards that's not only European but better than Netflix's, Baron Noir's your boy. Give it a whirl - there's a second season on the way in France next year. Here's a French-language trailer for you to get an idea of what it's like.

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