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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.


May 23, 2017

Review: Twin Peaks 3x1-3x2 (US: Showtime; UK: Sky Atlantic)

Posted on May 23, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Twin Peaks

In the US: Sundays, 9pm ET/PT, Showtime
In the UK: Mondays, 2am, Sky Atlantic

Like most of David Lynch's work, it's easy to recognise Twin Peaks' importance without really being able to explain why it's important. Ostensibly a pastiche of US soap operas mashed up with a murder-mystery, it was still obvious from the get-go that Lynch was doing something TV really hadn't done before. But it was really hard to say what it was doing.

I remember sitting in the TV room during my first week of university watching the show that all the papers had told us was must-see TV. I was already a Lynch fan, Channel 4 having introduced me to most of his movies over the years, so I was looking forward to it even more than most.

But for half an hour we sat there, wondering what the hell everyone was raving about, as the body of high school cheerleader Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) was washed up 'wrapped in plastic' near the small town of Twin Peaks and the inhabitants underwent all the stages of grief you'd expect from seeing a golden girl struck down in the prime of life in a town that felt like it hadn't quite escaped the 1950s.

Then enter Special Agent Dale Cooper (Dune and Blue Velvet's Kyle MacLachlan), a boy scout of an FBI agent sent to investigate the murder, and suddenly the tension of the room eased. At last, we understood what everyone was on about. This was magic. This was art.

Over the course of the next two seasons, the show proved elusive. Sometimes a murder-mystery, sometimes a comedy, sometimes a horror movie, Twin Peaks was indefinable oddness, with perfectly ordinary characters (James the biker boy) interspersed with oddball small town characters (Deputy Andy), oddball FBI agents (David Duchovny's cross-dressing agent and Lynch's own deaf agent), oddball characters from nowhere in the world (The Log Lady - so-called, because she carried a log with her) and oddball characters from nightmares (Bob, the ultimate killer of Laura Palmer, who came from 'the Black Lodge' and possessed people).

There have been books filled with theories about Twin Peaks and what it was. What's often forgotten is that it wasn't very David Lynch. Sure, the undertones from Blue Velvet, with its theme of "the darkness hiding behind the facade of white picket fences", was obvious. But while Cooper got inspiration from dreams and the Black Lodge had dead people talking backwards and dwarves dancing…

…the nightmare surrealism of Eraserhead was a distant memory.

In fact, objectively speaking, Twin Peaks was mostly a very conventional ABC soap opera cum thriller that just happened to have some wonderful characters and some wonderful moments of surrealism.

Nevertheless, despite being cancelled after two seasons and its follow-up movie flopping, Twin Peaks has remained a worldwide cult classic, esteemed almost as much as its contemporary The X-Files was, but without having been dragged past the point of a natural death and ending on a worthy cliffhanger - Cooper seemingly possessed by Bob after a final encounter in the Black Lodge. 

Somewhat perfectly, though, the show had a built-in promise that it would return in 25 years and Showtime in the US has delivered on that promise with a whole new limited series. The question was: what form would it take? Would it be a simple cash-in that brought back a few characters for a quick new murder to be solved? Would it simply riff all the original's greatest hits without adding anything? Sure, David Lynch was on board, but when was the last time he'd done something exceptional? Mullholland Drive or Lost Highway maybe?

Well, the first two episodes are in and I have to say the new Twin Peaks is magnificent. Absolutely magnificent. And what's more, it's a return not just to Twin Peaks but to the David Lynch of pretty much all his movies, including Eraserhead. Although maybe not Dune (Hal yawm!).

Continue reading "Review: Twin Peaks 3x1-3x2 (US: Showtime; UK: Sky Atlantic)"

May 22, 2017

Review: Downward Dog 1x1 (US: ABC)

Posted on May 22, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Downward Dog

In the US: Tuesdays, 8/7c, ABC

Downward Dog feels like an also-ran. When I was commenting last week how I was sure there were more new TV shows due our way soon, I was recalling from my write-up of last year's Upfronts that the show existed and was a mid-season replacement, and as mid-season was running out, surely Downward Dog had to be on on our screens soon (whither Still Star-Crossed?). 

More so, I wrote it up as "A dog comments on a woman's life", in part because of Imaginary Mary, which I wrote up as "An imaginary friend comments on a woman's life". It was clearly not just a second tier show, but a second tier show following in the wake of a near identical second tier show on the exact same network, but without even the benefit of Imaginary Mary's Jenna Elfman, making it probably a fifth tier show at best. 

Or so I thought. 

Based on a web series of the same name, Downward Dog sees Fargo's Allison Tolman playing some sort of creative in advertising. She puts together presentations for ad campaigns anyway. Whatever it is she does, it doesn't make her happy, in part because her boss Barry Rothbart (The Wolf of Wall Street) thinks he's a feminist but is really a mansplainer who'll go for any ad campaign containing French words and nudity.

Her personal life? Even less happy, since she's broken up from her boyfriend Lucas Neff (Raising Hope) and spends most of her nights in, crying to herself and drinking red wine.

Which cheers up her dog no end. That's quality time, he says. Because the conceit of Downward Dog is that her dog talks to camera, except rather than simply saying "Bunnies… food… meat… hugs… sleep" in continuous cycles, he talks to the camera like an emotionally hyperaware man talking to his therapist. He's still a dog, so doesn't understand that when Tolman drives off every morning, she's driving to work, not just having fun by herself. He doesn't think they're in a relationship either (thankfully), although they clearly have a relationship, and so 'Ned' spends most of his time dryly discussing what Tolman is doing wrong and how it affects him, his loneliness when she's out and so on. Oh yes, and the fact the neighbourhood cat (Lady Dynamite's Maria Bamford) is clearly a sociopath who wishes to destroy him emotionally.

So the show is of two halves. The workplace half is pretty ordinary stuff, with the standard Working Girl approach to work, with Tolman discovering her inner strength with the help of both Ned and gal pal Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Love), after being kept down by her boss. The far more interesting half is Ned and his commentary - perhaps unsurprisingly, as that's the core of the web series. At times, that's genuinely funny, although it's not until the dream sequence at the end that there was a real, life-out-loud moment. 

It's gentle, but human stuff that dog owners will probably find funnier than the pet-less will. It's smart, although not so much that you'll hear dozens of philosophical nuggets you'll have never heard of before. Downward Dog is nothing hugely remarkable, but for a fifth-tier, Jenna Elfman-less, mid-season ABC replacement, it's a lot better than it should be.

May 4, 2017

Review: The Handmaid's Tale 1x1-1x3 (US: Hulu; UK: Channel 4)

Posted on May 4, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The Handmaid's Tale

In the US: Available on Hulu. New episodes available Wednesdays
In the UK: Acquired by Channel 4. Starts May 28, 9pm 

There's a point in any new TV channel's life when it has to find a show that justifies its existence. It doesn't matter whether the channel's online or broadcast, whether it's number 1 on the EPG or at www.best-tv-ever.com, no one will care about it or watch it rather than channel 6 or www.stupidest-tv-ever.com until that show arrives.

Of the new, big online broadcasters, Netflix obviously hit the big time straight away with House of Cards and that, combined with later hits such as Orange in the New Black and The Crown, has meant people have subscribed to it in vast numbers while overlooking such as hiccups as Bloodline. Amazon, meanwhile, arguably still hasn't quite had the success of Netflix, both creatively and commercially, but The Man In the High CastleThe Grand Tour and Transparent have at least put it on the map.

So what of Hulu? It's certainly been trying to establish itself as a player, although being US-only obviously lends itself to problems in terms of worldwide 'mindshare'. But Shut Eye, 11.22.63 and Chance haven't exactly set the US on fire, let alone the world.

The Handmaid's Tale could be the show that changes that.

It's based on arguably the feminist dystopia novel, Margaret Attwood's novel of the same name. The novel posits a near future in which an extreme branch of Christianity manages to take over the US and seeks to restore the country to its own brand of patriarchal dominance as the "Republic of Gilead". Women are banned from owning property and having jobs.  Instead they must become subservient to men as housewives, known colloquially as 'Marthas'. Because fertility rates have been in decline for decades, the few remaining fertile women are enslaved as 'Handmaids' and given to important families to produce babies through ritualised rape by the husbands. To keep them in line, a strict re-education programme is introduced run by 'Aunts', who teach the correct, godly, Biblical way of living - although notably, the bit about 'the meek inheriting the Earth' is omitted and other Christian denominations that disagree are crushed by Gilead.

Narrated by one Handmaid, Offred ('Of Fred' - her owner), The Handmaid's Tale is basically a nightmare collage of women's fears about political tendencies in the US, married with current conditions for women in Saudi Arabia, that more or less every generation of American woman who reads it finds it all too plausible.

This adaptation by Bruce Miller (Eureka, The 100) is both loose and faithful to the book - certainly more faithful than the 1990 version, ostensibly scripted by Harold Pinter, which ditched many things, including Offred's narration.

This Gilead is set in the very near future indeed, reinstating both the novel's narration and flashbacks to show us Offred (Elisabeth Moss - The West Wing, Mad Men, Top of the Lake) both before and after becoming a Handmaid and how Gilead emerged from the modern US. However, with Attwood's novel being a reasonably thin tome, even the first three episodes don't really touch on the book's overall plot, only set up the boundaries of the society and introduce us to the main characters: Commander Fred (Joseph Fiennes), his Martha (Chuck's Yvonne Strahovski), fellow Handmaids Ofglen (Gilmore Girls' Alexis Bledel) and Ofwarren (Orange is the New Black's Madeline Brewer), and the Commander's driver Nick (Max Minghella).

Here the show does a very good job. There are nuances - rather than a simple black and white depiction, the show highlights how pretty much everyone suffers under the system in one way or another, and that Commander Fred would rather be playing Scrabble with Offred than anything else. You can see how Offred and others might get Stockholm Syndrome and sublimate the system. Gilead's emergence is all too plausible, more so perhaps than in either the novel or the book since the projected ecological diasters are already here, and the Trump White House is currently rolling back all manner of women's rights - we're all just one major terrorist attack away from Gilead. Scenes of riots and protests could have taken place a couple of months ago.

It also fleshes out Gilead, emphasising that as well as women's rights, LGBT rights are gone. Indeed, just as being a 'gender traitor' can be punished by death, so too can being Jewish or from any other Christian denomination. Ofglen, who dies very quickly in the book, is now a major character and is used to explore these new rules.

It's all hugely claustrophobic and terrifying, being about as timely as 24 was in its day (although obviously very differently).

Nevertheless, spreading the novel out of an entire season (and beyond, since the show was renewed for a second season today) reduces the overall effect of the piece, since there's not quite enough plot left in these three episodes to have as much impact as it could. Gilead's oppressive nature and beliefs are a plausible extrapolation of 80s America, but this is a future seemingly without technology, our own society already constantly observed, yet Handmaids are able to wander and plot unheard and unwatched by anyone - even if they find it hard to know whom to trust.

And while, of course, an allegory is an allegory and a wake-up call needs to shout to be heard, it does all feel like a liberal Canadian's view of what an oppressive regime taking over the US would look like - there are no Democrats exercising their second amendment rights against an overbearing government here. Some shots fired by men in black and that's that. The rest of the world? Who knows what that's up to…

But The Handmaid's Tale is both an impressive statement piece by Hulu and an excellent piece of feminist dystopian sci-fi/fantasy that focuses on the personal and highlights the perils for those enjoying the messy society in which we currently live of taking rights for granted. It's not easy viewing, but it is worth it.

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