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June 23, 2016

Review: American Gothic 1x1 (US: CBS; UK: Amazon Prime)

Posted on June 23, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

American Gothic

In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, CBS
In the UK: Thursdays, Amazon Prime

Does drama need to have a point? Tricky question - indeed, one I'm increasingly asking in this age of 'peak television'. Obviously drama needs to engage the audience (although Mr Bertolt Brecht might have something to say about it, were he still alive), so to that extent it needs a point. But does it need to speak to something, have a message or do anything beyond that engagement?

American Gothic certainly pushes that particular envelope to the limit, because for the life of me, in common with an increasing number of TV shows, I can't see the point of it at the moment, beyond it filling the airwaves for an hour. Not having read any press notes about it, I assumed it might have something to do with either

  1. The Grant Wood painting
    American Gothic by Grant Wood
  2. The 1995 TV series with Gary Cole

But it didn't take long to realise that at most it wanted to tie into the name of the painting while being 'a bit gothic' - especially since half the main cast aren't American. The show concerns one of those huge American families you get in TV shows, this one a blue collar Boston bunch who have done good for themselves, thanks to dad (Jamey Sheridan)'s construction company. Elder daughter Juliet Rylance (The Kick) is running for mayor and younger son Justin Chatwin (Shameless) is a newspaper cartoonist, while younger daughter Megan Ketch (Gotham, Blue Bloods) and mum Virginia Madsen (Dune, Highlander 2) don't do an awful lot but have husbands, one of whom is a cop.

During one of Rylance's press conferences, Sheridan has a heart attack. Is it age or could it be something to do with the recently discovered new evidence in the case of the notorious 'Silver Bell' serial killer? Whatever it is, it's time to lure back wayward eldest son Antony Starr (Outrageous Fortune, Banshee), who mysteriously disappeared 14 years ago, just as the Silver Bell killings ended. And coincidentally, what should the kids find stashed away in a box in the house but a whole bunch of silver bells like the one's the killer used to leave? Is Dad the killer? Or is Starr, who even if he didn't look like a serial killer, shaves with a hunting knife? Or were they accomplices? Or was it someone else in the family? Whatever it is, it's probably genetic, judging by the way Chatwin's young son has started cutting up cats…

All dark and nasty, albeit with almost nothing to say, just a mystery that needs solving. Except American Gothic also has a weirdly comedic vibe to it. No laughs at all, unless you count people not noticing a car being crushed behind them, and most of the cast are as dead serious as can be, but Madsen, Chatwin and incidental music composer Jeff Russo (Fargo, Power, Extant) are all utterly convinced this is supposed to be a dark comedy, judging by the various choices they've made.

Drama, comedy or dramedy, though, American Gothic isn't very good at any of them. The plot is a composite of all the dafter novels you could pick up in an airport book store, five minutes before your flight was due to board. The dialogue is arch most of the time, but rarely seems to have been intended to do more than sketch, rather than give depth - when Ketch reveals that her husband has just had a promotion, everyone congratulates them for all of five seconds… before instantly moving on to explaining the plot at each other again. You'd think they might ask a question, maybe even two, wouldn't you? And even if they didn't, you'd think Ketch and co might be a bit miffed, wouldn't you? But no.

Starr's the show's main draw, doing an even less animated, more menacing version of his Banshee performance, although Rylance is no shirk, Chatwin is engagingly dotty and Madsen gets hidden depths in the last few minutes of the episode. But the script simply doesn't give them much to work with and it doesn't give you a reason to want to watch the rest of the show. Despite the entire kitchen sink of drama tools being thrown at the screen, it's a show about nothing - and not in a Seinfeld way. It's not saying anything about social mobility, the rich, families, serial killers, Boston, politics, the police or anything else, unless it accidentally stumbles into it. The characters exist merely to drive the plot and/or provide ambiguity. There aren't even any real gothic qualities to it, beyond the occasional shot of mist and old stonework.

So if American Gothic doesn't know why you should you watch it, beyond an arbitrary mystery that needs solving, can you think of a good reason? 

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Third-episode verdict: Le Bureau Des Légendes (The Bureau) (France: Canal+; UK: Amazon Instant Video)

Posted on June 23, 2016 | comments | Bookmark and Share

Le Bureau Des Légendes

In France: Broadcast on Canal+ in 2015
In the UK: Available on Amazon Instant Video

Walter has been napping. Supposedly watching hours of foreign-language TV every week to find the best shows from around the world for Channel 4, somehow he managed to avoid watching any of Canal+'s 2015 output - despite Canal+ officially being France's good TV channel. That means Amazon have had the chance to poach Canal+'s Le Bureau Des Légendes (The Bureau) from out of Walter's hands. Oops.

In that curious way these things happen, we've coincidentally been talking a lot about both verisimilitude and spy shows in the past couple of weeks, taking in along the way both Legends and The Night Manager. The latter is the epitome of modern British spy shows, departing from the glorious semi-realistic days of Callan, The Sandbaggers, et al to give us nonsensical, cliched but glossy affairs that convince almost no one.

Fortunately, France seems to remember how to do a decent spy show, judging by Le Bureau Des Légendes. Set in the undercover section of France's equivalent of MI6, the DGES, it sees Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine) playing a top undercover operative who's been working in Damascus for the past six years. He's mysteriously summoned back to Paris at short notice, where very quickly problems emerge with 'Cyclone', the DGES' top operative in Algeria. A devout Muslim, Cyclone is nevertheless mysteriously arrested for drink-driving and is taken away by Algerian police, before promptly disappearing. Has he been rumbled as a spy or has he been turned and engineered his own disappearance? 

In common with its stable-mate at Canal+, Engrenages (Spiral), there are multiple wheels turning within wheels in Le Bureau Des Légendes. Despite being ordered to break off all ties with her, Kassovitz invites his married lover from Damascus (Zineb Triki) to visit him in Paris. His superiors wonder whether he has 'Post Mission Disorder' and can't shake off his old life. But more importantly, Triki might have secrets of her own that jeopardise Kassovitz.

At the same time and seemingly unrelated to the main plot, Kassovitz is training up a new operative (Sara Giraudeau) to go undercover in Iran. There's also a new psychiatrist (Léa Drucker) monitoring everyone and Kassovitz has to deal with his now grown-up teenage daughter, whom he left without explanation. And there's a bunch of French spies out in the Sahara somewhere who are definitely up to something, but by the end of the third episode, may themselves not know what that is. Just to make everything even less clear, the third episode is told in flashback while Kassovitz is attached to a lie detector - all without explanation.

How it all fits together I suspect is something that will get revealed by the end of the season, but it's merely happy to set up the puzzles in these first few episodes.

In common with the likes of The Sandbaggers, the show is admirably concerned with realism and tradecraft. Although it occasionally uses the likes of Drucker and Giraudeau to Basil Exposition everything to us, it does do its best to give us a look at how spies probably work and approach security in the 21st century in a way that most other shows ignore. Mobile phones are banned in the Bureau in case of remote exploits turning them into listening devices and operatives have to clean their own desks so that no one who doesn't 'need to know' needs to enter the Bureau. But that's basic compared to things like mapping mobile phone signals and using behaviour analysis of the data to get an indication of likely events. 

As you might expect from the double meaning of bureau/office, also in common with The Sandbaggers, this is a show that's mostly about talking and office work. Big chunks of it are people sitting around discussing what precious information they have from far away can mean, as well as internal and external politics with other agencies, divisions, superiors and allies. Although the second episode does give us a car chase of sorts through central Paris, it ends as a car chase in central Paris probably would end, rather than à la The Bourne Identity's. The show also does have the occasional moment of humour, such as an odd little side-plot in the third episode involving a mouse getting into the Bureau and Drucker's analysis of her superior's multi-coloured tie.

Linguistically, there are fun things going on in the French that for once, the subtitles actually do a jolly decent job of conveying, but occasionally miss out on. I quite liked the French 'faire le ménage' (to do the housework) being used to mean 'remove anything incriminating from the house', for example, but that gets translated as 'clean the house', which sort of works but not quite. More entertainingly, all the codenames for undercover operatives are derived from insults and expletives used by Captain Haddock in the French-language Tin Tin comics. But as befits such a globally-focused show, there's plenty of Arabic and the occasional bit of English, too.

It's not 100% realistic. While there's some admirable computer expertise behind the scenes, for some reason everyone in France uses the same Windows XP installation, no matter where they work. It also seems unlikely that anyone who'd been undercover for six years would have been so senior or so readily accepted back into the fold.

But Le Bureau Des Légendes is certainly the best spy show I've seen this year and the first French show in quite some time that I've actually wanted to boxset (sorry, Marseille). There have already been two seasons in France, and a third is on the way, so give it a go if you can.

Barrometer rating: 1
Would it be better with a female lead? Yes, but is that ever going to happen in France?
TMINE's prediction: N/A

Here's a French-language trailer, but if you want one with subtitles, you'll need to go here, although there are a few spoilers from after the first three episodes by the looks of it.

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June 22, 2016

Review: Guilt 1x1-1x2 (US: Freeform)

Posted on June 22, 2016 | comments | Bookmark and Share

Guilt

In the US: Mondays, 9/8c, Freeform
In the UK: Not yet acquired

There was a time when the US couldn't make a programme set in the UK to save its life. Here's just a shot from one of The Man From UNCLE's many episodes set in the UK (The Deep Six Affair), with Napoleon and Ilya driving around the British countryside:

The Deep Six Affair

Despite being back-projected in a studio and having Scotsman David McCallum on hand to point out mistakes, not only are the trees all Californian, but that's a left-hand drive car.

Over the years, though, US TV has got better, even coming to the UK to film episodes that are set in the UK, with the likes of Friends, Elementary, Parks and Recreation, Lost, 24 et al all coming over to set ever more accurate episodes on our shores. This came to an apotheosis last year with the second season of Legends, a US show now set in the UK that was almost indistinguishable from a UK show:

So does that mean that the US has nailed it, that it can now make UK-set shows that we natives will accept as accurate?

Judging by Guilt, Freeform's new murder-mystery soap set in London, the answer is a resounding no. With certain echoes of the Amanda Knox caseGuilt sees Daisy Head (The Syndicate, and daughter of Anthony "Giles from Buffy" Head) playing a US student studying in London who's implicated in the murder of her Northern Irish flatmate. Things look increasingly bad for her, despite the efforts of the buff British rozzer who believes she's innocent (Cristian Solimeno from Footballer's Wives and Hollyoaks), so her sister, a Boston lawyer (Emily Tremaine from The Blacklist and Vinyl), comes over to help out, along with her step-dad (confusingly, Anthony "Giles from Buffy" Head). But with Tremaine not licensed to practise law in the UK, the family turn to the eccentric and fedora-clad disgraced US attorney turned UK barrister Billy Zane (The Phantom, Titanic, et al) to help them navigate the legal waters.

For UK viewers, the show is trapped in a certain 'uncanny valley', being good enough that you focus on what it gets wrong rather than what it gets right. Despite its almost entirely British cast and copious London location filming, it gets a lot wrong indeed, mainly through imposing US ideas of legal systems, police, housing, clothing, trains, parties and London on a UK setting. Zane's legal offices seem to be in an airy New York Brownstone, rather than in a squalid London barristers' chambers; the CPS 'prosecuter' hangs around guiding police investigations; despite being licensed for law in the UK, Zane doesn't seem to know about the differences in the right to silence et al between England and the US; university campuses look more like Harvard than UCL; warehouses look like they're in Brooklyn; the Eurostar looks more like it's on the way to DC; and WC1 flats look like they're in Manhattan.

Head's flatmate is allegedly from Northern Ireland (no one ever specifies where exactly, though), which gives us dialogue between her brother and the police/'prosecutor' such as: "Are you kidding me? Care about a young girl from Northern Ireland? Your system has oppressed my people for centuries." Erm, what?

Another big problem of Guilt is that it's also quite clearly a TV show, one in the vein of Pretty Little Liars, and it imposes soapy US TV ideas on the real world, as well as the UK. British cops all sit around in airy offices with magic flat screen computers, have underlit interrogation rooms that wouldn't pass the requirements of any of the Police and Criminal Evidence Acts, not even having voice recorders, and use magic computers to instantly take fingerprints. Tremaine, despite her supposed brilliance as an attorney, is actually stupendously awful even in the US, giving a closing summary in a murder trial that more or less consists of: "I bumped into a man this morning and spilt coffee. That was an accident. Murder isn't an accident. You need to send this man to prison."

When all of this intersects, it becomes disasterous. We have a strange sub-plot that implicates Head's flatmate (and perhaps Head) in an Eyes Wide Shut-style prostitution ring that looks to involve not only lesbians but 'Prince Theo', who's a bit into his bondage. Yes, of course the Royal Family are involved. Some things about US TV's ideas of the UK will never change, it seems. 

I found the first two episodes of Guilt almost unbearable to watch, not just because of the bad UK but simply because it's a bad, nay ridiculous drama. As well as the soapy flirting, sexiness, et al, the show's creators have made Head's character as transgressive as possible: she has an affair with her professor (apparently, you only get one of those at UK universities); slashes his car's tyres, causing his wife to have an accident; can't remember what happened the night of her flat-mate's murder because she was too coked up; is caught on video attacking her flat-mate; and more. While arguably it's an attempt to demonstrate that victim-blaming is wrong, you can't use someone's background as a reliable indicator of whether they've committed a crime and so on, it just means that she comes across as an astonishing idiot with whom it's very hard to sympathise. 

Freeform? Free-from intelligence.

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American Gothic

What's the point?