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July 3, 2014

Review: Tyrant 1x1-1x2 (FX)

Posted on July 3, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Tyrant

In the US: Tuesdays, 10pm, FX

Sometimes, before criticising fiction, it's worth looking at reality and noting just how much weirder it can be. 

Take Bashar al-Assad. He's the ruler of a little country called Syria that you might have heard of recently. He's very much A Bad Man, having amongst other things deployed chemical weapons against his own population in a very bloody civil war that's claimed the lives of over 100,000 people.

Guess what? He never wanted to be ruler of Syria. He wanted to be a doctor. In fact, he went to Western Eye Hospital, part of the St Mary's group of teaching hospitals in London, so that he could become an opthamologist. 

In fact, it was his brother Bassel who was being groomed for power by their father, Hafez al-Assad. However, Bassel was killed in a car accident, which meant that Bashar was recalled back to Syria and his father decided to prepare him to become president instead.

Reality is strange: had that car accident not happened, one of the bloodiest dictators of modern history would be off treating eye disorders somewhere.

Thus, going into FX's new show Tyrant, it's worth remembering that despite all the seemingly preposterous conceits of the show, reality is almost certainly serving up something stranger somewhere in the world. Set in a thinly veiled version of Syria that's separated by a mere star on its flag from the real thing, it sees an Arab-American paediatrician return back to his home country for his nephew's wedding. While there, his father has a stroke and his brother has a car accident, which would be merely tragic were it not for the fact that his father is the ruler of the country and he in turn is now its new de facto ruler - at least until his brother gets better. Will he prove to be a better, kinder ruler, or will power turn him into the thing that he's tried to so hard to avoid?

Written by Gideon Raff, the Israeli writer/director who created the original HomelandPrisoners of War/Hatufilm, the show is a hard but rewarding watch, albeit one that knows it. But it's not without its problems. 

Here's a trailer. 

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July 2, 2014

Preview: Constantine 1x1 (NBC)

Posted on July 2, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

constantine-keyart-promo.jpg

In the US: Fridays, 10/9c, NBC. Starts October 24

I was remarking only yesterday how DC comics and adaptations in other media now have something of a reputation for gloomy grittiness. When did this start, you might wonder, given how light and breezy the 1980s Superman and 1990s Batman movies were (yes, they were. Don't argue)? Some might argue it was Denny O'Neil's Batman strips. Others might point to the mid-80s decision by DC to try to appeal more to adults than children with its comics, which led to 'Crisis on Infinite Earths'. 

But it probably began with a strand of DC comic-writing that began in the 80s and blossomed in the 90s with DC's 'Vertigo' imprint, which was intended for 'mature readers'. Many of Vertigo's creations are still with us: Shade the Changing Man, Animal Man and Doom Patrol still crop up in DC Comics, although most people haven't heard of them. They will almost certainly have heard of Neil Gaiman's Sandman - indeed, it's the creation that introduced the world to Gaiman and even now, movie producers are trying to come up with a way to adapt it that can feature Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

The other Vertigo character of note is John Constantine. Not truly a Vertigo original - Alan Moore created Constantine as an escort for another future Vertigo character, Swamp Thing, during that mid-80s 'Crisis' - it was nevertheless Vertigo and writer Jamie Delano who turned Constantine from a chain-smoking, trenchcoat-wearing, petty London street thug and Sting-lookalike with a certain knowledge of the occult into one of DC's most popular, authentic and powerful characters in Hellblazer. Since then, Constantine has gone on to fight demons, devils and angels in his own comic, Constantine, as well as heading Justice League Dark. He's even appeared in a movie of his own, played by no lesser and no less an inappropriate actor than Keanu Reeves:

Now NBC, which scored something of a critical, if not ratings success with 'elegant horror' show Hannibal, is trying to branch out into more conventional horror with its own version of John Constantine. Vastly more faithful visually and culturally than the movie, and drawing considerably on Delano's Hellblazer run for its plot, NBC's Constantine is nevertheless a horror show exemplified by the fact that its bad boy protagonist isn't allowed to smoke on network TV in case it sends the wrong message.

Here's a trailer.

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July 2, 2014

Review: The Leftovers 1x1 (HBO/Sky Atlantic)

Posted on July 2, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The Leftovers

In the US: Sundays, 10pm, HBO
In the UK: Aquired by Sky Atlantic. Will air in September

TV is filled with death. For many shows, it's their staple. What would 24 or Banshee be without their epic body counts? Would everyone love Game of Thrones as much were it not for its regular game of 'Guess who's going to pop their clogs this season'? Probably not.

In the real world, though, death generally isn't quite as desirable, even if it is inevitable. The effects of someone's death are almost always huge, traumatic and life-changing for those who know them. Religion can provide some comfort for the bereaved. It can even provide some answers as to why death happens at all. TV shows that remember this are few and far between.

So in many ways, The Leftovers is unusual and innovative. Adapted by Tom Perrotta, Lost's Damon Lindelof and Friday Night Lights' Peter Berg from Perrotta's book of the same name, it takes the Christian concept of the Rapture - in which the true believers in Jesus are taken up into the sky to be with God, leaving behind everyone to be judged before Jesus's second coming - and gives it a slight twist. What if 2% of the world's population just vanished, leaving everyone else behind, with no explanation for their departure? What would those remaining behind do? How would they feel? And without angels coming down to explain everything and given that some of that 2% include some very bad people indeed, not just the blessed - I mean, Gary Busey was one of those who disappeared. Gary Busey - could people even be sure it was God and not aliens or some bizarre space-time accident that caused the disappearance?

The answer to this existential dilemma, it appears, is be largely miserable, dull and nihilistic. Strangely, in fact, it seems like the animals have a better idea about what's going on than the humans do.

Here's a trailer. If you're in the US, though, you can watch the whole of the first episode over on Yahoo.

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