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An archive of all the blog's reviews of TV programmes, films, DVDs, plays, audio plays and gadgets. There's also an A-Z index of all reviews.


October 23, 2014

Third-episode verdict: The Flash (US: The CW; UK: Sky 1)

Posted on October 23, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

BarrometerFlash.jpgA Barrometer rating of 1

In the US: Tuesdays, 8pm ET, The CW
In the UK: Tuesdays, 8pm, Sky 1. Starts October 28

Three episodes into The Flash, the latest CW adaptation of a DC comic book, and it's becoming pretty clear that despite coming from the same creative team as the rather good ArrowThe Flash is very much Smallville but with a superhero who's human and capable only of running very fast. With its "kryptonitedark matter freek of the week" that only the Flash can stop, its young love and failed romances, its concerns with great powers bringing with them great responsibillities, you could probably take any Smallville script, run a reasonably simple find-and-replace on it and end up with a The Flash script.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing - after all, Smallville ran for a record-breaking 11 seasons and there's many a TV show that would kill for even half that run. All the same a little innovation would be nice.

And indeed that's what you get with The Flash, which rather than waiting three seasons as Smallville did to realise it was a superhero show and geek out, went Nerd Factor 10 from the first episode, and mined the comics for some of the best Flash supervillains and other superheroes available. And in contrast with the early 90s adaptation starring John Wesley Shipp (who plays the Flash's dad in this adaptation), it's got series arc after series arc, crossovers with Arrow and a greater willingness to embrace the comic book's later attempts to make the Flash more than just the fastest man alive, with a time travel plot that lifts the show above what could simply be fluffy, brainless, "crash bang", teen kisses fare into somewhat darker territory. 

True, the science is still bobbins but we're talking about someone who got to run at 300mph after a lab accident, so that comes with the territory. And as with Smallville's earlier episodes, there's the frustration of watching our hero having to learn about his powers and come into others we know he'll have, and so, for example, having to deal with a mist villain in the third ep by running around a bit, rather than using his arms to create disruptive air vortices as we know he'll be able to do at a later point.

But as with Smallville, too, it's all part of the journey, something again explicit in the (spoiler alert) time travel plot, with the Flash's protective overseer from the future - probably Professor Zoom - potentially causing the accident that created the Flash in the first place so that he'll become the hero necessary to save the day in years to come and maybe even cause that time travel capability to be created.

Of course, the Flash doesn't have the real-world popularity of either Batman or Superman, so to the average viewer, it'll all be new. And the producers are of course resultingly at liberty to change big chunks of mythos if they want to - need Barry and Iris end up married as they are in the comics? No more than helper doctor Caitlin Snow has to become Killer Frost, who was never engaged to the future Firestorm in the comics, no matter how many lines about their being 'like fire and ice' are thrown in for the fans.

This embracing of comics is ultimately going to be either a strength for the show, which has already been picked up for a full season, or a weakness. If you don't like comics, prefer something a bit darker and Nolan-esque, and find even Arrow to be too escapist for you, there's no way in hell you're going to enjoy this. But if bright, shiny fun comics are your thing, and you don't have huge expectations of its young cast or lowish budget, then The Flash is well worth your time - especially when the only real competition in town are  Gotham and Constantine

Barrometer rating: 1
Rob's prediction: Should last at least a season but will need to work a bit to ensure it doesn't fall into a rut

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October 22, 2014

Preview: Rome: The World's First Superpower 1x1 (UK: Channel 5)

Posted on October 22, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Rome__The_World_s_First_Superpower.jpg

In the UK: Fridays, 8pm, Channel 5. Starts Friday 24th October

Channel Five’s best kept secrets are its documentaries - although the channel as a whole as a reputation for low quality programming, beyond a couple of decent imports and one original drama (Suspects), its documentaries are actually really good.

So let's get the worst part of this out the way: the title. Rome wasn’t the world’s first superpower, since the Persian empire was not only a third bigger, it also had 44% of the world's population under its control at its height. And if you don't like that, there was also the Macedonian Empire under Alexander The Great.

Hyperbolic title aside, though, it's all actually very good. You might not think Larry Lamb from Gavin & Stacey and EastEnders would be the best person to present a documentary covering the history of Rome, from the city's foundation through its attainment of empire through to its collapse. Certainly, if you think back to Joanna Lumley’s Greek Odyssey on ITV, you can see all the potential traps writ large of having an actor hosting what is potentially a lavish, content-free and even misleading travelogue. But not only is Lamb engaging and passionate, he’s an amateur historian - he goes to Rome every year, he speaks Italian, and he's been studying Rome almost all his adult life. More so, as an actor he can re-enact readings from the works of Livy, for example, rather than merely having an actor blankly read the same in voiceover.

The show goes to pertinent locations in both Rome and Pompeii (and in later episodes to Tunisia, Sicily and France), to explore Roman history and archaeology. We get to see the sewer system under Rome, which dates back 2,500 years. Indeed, it’s the first time the oldest part has ever been shown on TV, making that a good enough reason for a classics-lover to watch the show. Along the way, Lamb interviews historians and archaeologists, including Richard Miles, who’s presented documentaries for BBC2 and BBC4. Lamb’s an intelligent interviewer and asks some decent questions of the experts. He also puts his working class roots to the fore, focusing on areas that other shows don’t, such as the relationship between the plebeians and nobles, giving us choice lines such as "The Romans' noble ambitions were just that: the ambitions of nobles." He’s also happy to throw out a little Latin as needs be, such as Senatus Populusque Romanus (SPQR).

The show itself also looks good and there’s some knowing Spartacus qualities in the CGI and recreations of scenes, although that's mostly done with statues rather than actors, which is novel. Channel 5 may do good documentaries - but it doesn't quite have the budget of the BBC.

About the only thing that drew me up was when Lamb says that he's realising that the rape of the Sabine women was the 'kind of thing you have to do if you want to become a superpower - which I can’t imagine Mary Beard or Bethany Hughes letting through on one of their shows. Otherwise, entirely recommended for anyone with an interest in history, particularly Roman history.

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Preview: Grayson Perry: Who Are You? 1x1 (UK: Channel 4)

Posted on October 22, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Grayson Perry: Who Are You?

In the UK: Wednesdays, 9pm, Channel 4. Starts tonight

Grayson Perry is an artist well known for playing with the theme of identity and is going to have an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, entitled 'Who Are You?', that ties into the question of what identity is. Channel 4's Grayson Perry: Who Are You? is effectively both a 'Making of' and a hybrid long-form chat show in which Grayson Perry follows the subjects he's chosen for this exhibition for days and weeks at a time, trying to get to know them and understand them, so that he can create a definitive portrait that captures who they are.

Perry has chosen a disparate group of people for his exhibition, some famous, some not. So in this first of three episodes, we have Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat MP who ended up going to prison in 2012, Rylan Clark from The X-Factor and Celebrity Big Brother, a young white Muslim woman and a black transgender man.

To the show’s credit, Perry does a much better job of finding out about his subjects than the average chat show does - although given he has months to do this, that’s not a huge surprise. But he does ask quite brave, challenging questions to get to the bottom of his subjects, and he’s also insightful - he compares his Muslim subject and her pared down attitude to life with the consumerism at the nearby Ashford shopping mall which he says looks like a 'bedouin tent’. For his Rylan Clark portrait, he also makes the comparison between the phones that we all carry with us for selfies and the miniatures Elizabethans carried around of celebrities.

The subjects are also quite brave. The transgender man goes back to his old school to talk about gender identity and the kids at the school are very perceptive, talking about what is acceptable for boys and what’s acceptable for girls and what those boundaries are. Jazz, the transgender man, in turn points out that things that people do to try to find evidence of his 'true femininity', such as how he cuts bread: “How do you cut bread like a woman?” The Muslim woman’s family thoughtfully argue with her about not just Islam but all religion and its restrictions on freedom. She argues that religion helps to keep a marriage together and her relative asks in return: “Do you watch EastEnders?”

The show is also about Perry and about his concept of his own identity. This often feels more constructed than anyone else’s identity, with Perry claiming to be as a portrait painter “part-psychiatrist, part-detective”, and frequently talking about how chippy and working class he is and how he’s challenging the National Portrait Gallery by including people who aren’t old dead white males in power - even though the gallery invited him to put on the exhibition and has had similarly challenging exhibitions before. Chris Huhne is supposed to represent that tradition, and perhaps because he does (or did) have power, he’s the only one who really challenges Perry’s power as interviewer and points out that while Perry might be chippy and working class, he also has an OBE.

All in all, a good, thought-provoking, insightful documentary that’s very enjoyable. 

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Rome: The World's First Superpower

Silly title, good documentary