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February 2, 2017

Review: Riverdale 1x1 (US: The CW; UK: Netflix)

Posted on February 2, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Riverdale

In the US: Thursdays, 9/8c, The CW
In the UK: Available on Netflix. New episode every Friday

If all you know about American comics involves superheroics, Archie is a bit of a surprise. First published in 1939, Archie is one of the few comics consistently still sold in US supermarkets, its sales often matching those of Batman at times, and it's launched numerous spin-off titles in its time, too - UK readers might not have heard of him, but you'll have heard of Josie and the Pussycats, who first started life in Archie's Riverdale.

Archie's success is odd, since it's not about fights, threats to the world, crime and existential angst. Instead, it's all about red-haired teenager Archie Andrews and his life, love, dreams and friendships in a 50s-esque small town, with a particular focus on his near-eternal love-triangle between girl next-door Betty Cooper and rich girl Veronica Lodge.

Archie, Veronica and Betty

The idea of an Archie TV series therefore sounds a bit bizarre. The idea of it being made by Greg Berlanti sounds even stranger. Sure, Berlanti is the king of TV comic-book adaptations at the moment, with Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow and DC's Legends of Tomorrow swelling The CW's airwaves already and yet more in the pipeline. But those are all superhero comics and that's just not Archie.

Yet in the hands of both Berlanti and Archie Comics' chief creative officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Riverdale is actually delightful. Just delightful. Despite it being full of murder.

It takes a certain amount chutzpah to try to do Twin Peaks again in the exact same year that said show returns to our screens, yet Riverdale is effectively the 'Twin Peaks-isation' of Riverdale, taking all the familiar elements of the comics, throwing them up in the air, adding in a murder-mystery, then seeing where they all land in the present day.

Here, Archie (Shortland Street's KJ Apa) is a would-be musician and potential member of the Varsity football team. Having spent the summer working for his dad's construction company, he's now got abs to die for, giving best friend Betty (Surviving Jack's Lili Reinhart), Betty's gay best friend Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) and members of the football team girl, boy and bro boners aplenty. Even members of the faculty find it hard to keep their hands off Archie - although Josie and her Pussycats seem immune to his charms.

Betty - who'd quite like her and Archie's friendship to be something more - is all ready to make a play for him and invite him to the dance, when into the Chock'lit Shoppe diner walks Veronica (Camila Mendes), the daughter of rich but disgraced Hiram Lodge, who's relocated back to her mother (24's Marisol Nichols)'s home town of Riverdale to start a new life. Instantly, she attracts Archie's attention. 

However, Archie's not quite himself because of what happened over the summer. What happened over the summer? Well, that's Archie's secret, but as narrator Jughead (Cole Sprause) reveals as he types out his novel at the diner, it might well have something to do with the mysterious disappearance of Jason Blossom, twin brother of the town's chief mean girl Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch). 

What's fascinating about the show is how nice it is - almost a modern day Dawson's Creek or Hidden Palms - with literate, mature teenagers having deep, meaningful conversations with one another and generally being nice and witty. Veronica and Betty may be in a love triangle with Archie, but they also become fast friends, Veronica turning over a new leaf in her life following her father's disgrace to want to be more than just a stereotypical rich b*tch. And there's a scene of just Betty dancing by herself that's almost pure joy.

Indeed, everyone's almost impossibly mature, with Cheryl Blossom putting Betty down as being "fat, like season 5 Betty Draper", Veronica making over Betty later on to become "like season 1 Betty Draper". Mad Men references? It's a sign the audience for the show isn't expected to just be teenagers. In fact, with the likes of Mädchen Amick (Twin Peaks) and Luke Perry (Beverly Hills 90210) playing Betty's mum and Archie's dad respectively, it's clear that the show wants to attract the interest of Archie readers who were teenagers in the 90s, too.

Even if you never read Archie, try Riverdale as it's a delightful show for people of all ages - one that avoids the saccharine with its surprising twisting of the story into Lynchian territory. 

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January 27, 2017

Review: Mary Kills People 1x1 (Canada: Global)

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

Mary Kills People

In Canada: Wednesdays, 9pm ET/PT, Global

Euthanasia doesn't seem like the best subject for a comedy drama, even a dark one. In fact, it isn't, judging by Mary Kills People, in which Caroline Dhavernas (Wonderfalls, Hannibal, Off The Map) plays a doctor who somewhat illegally helps the terminally ill to end their lives even sooner in exchange for a big pile of cash.

The easy flame against Mary Kills People would be that watching it makes you want to end your own life, it's so dull. Easy, but true, unfortunately, since the opening episode that introduces us to Mary, her family, her partner in crime (Richard Short) is something of a slog that makes you long for the sweet release of death.

The opening is a misjudged failed euthanasia of 19-2's Adrian Holmes that ends with Dhavernas smothering him with a pillow then leaping out of a window. That's still more exciting and better judged than anything that happens afterwards, which is largely about the logistics of Dhavernas' operation, how she keeps it secret from her daughter and the fact she might be attracting the attention of some people she really ought to be avoiding. Attempts to forge a buddy-buddy relationship between Dhavernas and Short are stilted and lamentable, largely being discussions about which of their patients they'd have sex with.

The show wants to think it's starting a conversation about the morality of euthanasia, but has nothing much to say on the subject having started the conversation. Is what Dhavernas doing right or wrong? Is it ethical to have a relationship with someone you're about to murder at their own request? Big shrugs from Mary Kills People, but isn't Dhavernas pretty? Ooh.

To the show's credit, it is at least exploring a novel and bold idea from a novel and bold direction. But by the end of it, you feel that the whole thing is an attempt to redo Weeds in Canada with a slightly different ethical issue, rather than to do something genuinely groundbreaking.

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January 26, 2017

Review: Cardinal 1x1 (Canada: CTV/Super Écran; UK: BBC Four)

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

Cardinal

In Canada: Wednesdays, 10 pm ET/PT, CTV
In Canada (en Français): Thursdays, 10pm, Super Écran
In the UK: Acquired by BBC Four for broadcast in 2017

Nordic Noir has been a staple of our airwaves for almost exactly a decade now  - ever since Forbydelsen (The Killing) hit our screens in 2007, in fact. What exactly makes something a Nordic Noir? It seems an obvious question - a Noir-esque drama made in the Nordic regions - but if you Theseus paradox the whole situation, suddenly it's not quite as clear.

For example, can a country outside the Nordic regions make a Nordic Noir? It seems so. After all, UK made its own version of the Wallander stories, and we've gone on to make Fortitude, The Tunnel (Tunnel) and Y Gwyll (Hinterland), all of which seem to be as close to Nordic Noir as you can get without everyone speaking a Scandinavian language - at least before Fortitude went a bit bonkers and sci-fi.

However, The Killing (US), Those Who Kill and The Bridge (US) were almost identikit versions of the originals yet still didn't have the feel of Nordic Noir, so clearly there's something in the country of origin and the US doesn't seem to have it. But how about Canada, which like the UK and the Scandinavian countries seems so lovely and calm and dull on the exterior but is possibly a seething mass of darkness underneath all the bad weather? 

Enter Cardinal to help us test the paradox further. 

Based on the first of Giles Blunt's six 'John Cardinal Mysteries', Forty Words For Sorrow, the series stars Billy Campbell (Helix, The Killing (US), The Rocketeer) as the eponymous Cardinal, a Canadian police detective in the fictional Algonquin Bay, who investigates the disppearance of a young girl. Unable to find her, he goes off the rails and is demoted, but a year later, the body of the girl turns up and he is reassigned to what is now a murder case, working alongside new recruit Karine Vanasse (Pan Am, Revenge).

It would be tempting to think of this as a Canadian version of Forbydelsen (The Killing) and the rest of its ilk, since many of the hallmarks of the genre are all present and correct: troubled investigator; cunning serial killer; general sadness, isolation, coldness and gloominess; and a thorough mining of the emotions of death, particularly the death of a child, and its effects on a community. 

But I think comparisons would be misleading since although it is still a Nordic Noir, this is very much a show creating its own sub-genre: Canadian Noir. Beautifully shot in the Ontario winter, this is clearly a Canadian show with Canadian concerns. The police are obviously Canadians, not Americans in disguise, right down to the RCMPs. The Québécoise Vanasse not only is allowed to keep her accent, she is actually playing a Québécoise rather than a French woman for a change. The missing girl is a First Nation child and some of the first episode is dedicated to whether she receive a traditional First Nation or a Christian funeral or not. 

The show's attempts at accurate depiction of Canadian police work also place it in the same court as the outstanding 19-2, which might now perhaps be considered a prototype of Canadian Noir. As well as being directed by Podz, who directed both the French version of the show, as well as the outstanding single-take tracking shot in the English-language version…

…19-2 has a similar, major theme: (spoiler) an internal investigation of the lead character by the partner. Whether that'll become a defining feature of Canadian Noir remains to be seen.

The show's high production values, general timbre, decent acting, beautiful direction and beautiful location filming do go a long way to cover up the fact that the plot itself is a bit hackneyed. Sure, there are variations from the standard clichés, with Cardinal's deep dark secret involving his wife turning out to be unique for a detective show. But it's a serial killer being chased by an obsessed, unhappy cop, rather than a content family man tracking down a white collar fraudster between the hours of nine to five on weekdays. It's not that innovative.

All the same, Cardinal is the best new drama out of Canada since 19-2 and a worthy addition to the Nordic Noir catalogue. Fingers crossed for a UK airing.

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