Normally, I don't bother reviewing Amazon pilots for a number of reasons:
They're pilots, so there's no guarantee they're going to end up becoming series.
Pilots aren't always representative of shows, with some shows starting off badly and getting better, or vice versa, as the Barrometer will explain to you if you ever corner it backstage.
Amazon's 'pilot seasons' always seem to come at my busiest times.
However, since August's been a bit quiet and the latest pilot season has had some intriguing entries, I decided to make an exception - just this time.
So after the jump, I'll be providing mini-reviews of F Scott Fitzgerald adaptation The Last Tycoon, superhero comedy The Tick, Kevin Bacon love affair I Love Dick and meta action comedy Jean Claude Van Johnson. No prizes for guessing who stars in the last one.
There can be few channels around the world as reliable as Canal+ when it comes to producing quality TV. Chances are, provided it sticks to French, any Canal+ series you watch is going to be HBO-good.
A case in point is Baron Noir, a remarkably prescient and impressive political series that is everything that Les Hommes de L'ombre (Spin)and Marseilleshould have been but weren't. Airing in France in February and March this year, but available in the UK on Amazon, the show somehow managed to anticipate both this year's Brexit and the Corbyn/Smith Labour leadership competition and relocate them to France, taking in all of left-wing French politics along the way.
And when I say 'all', I mean all.
The show is about the mayor of Dunkirk, Kad Merad (Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis), an old-school socialist who's spent years fighting (sometimes literally, with a baseball bat) for the poor, oppressed working classes. He's best friends with fellow socialist and presidential candidate Niels Arestrup (Un prophète, De battre mon cœur s'est arrêté, Quai d'Orsay), to the extent that he's willing to steal money from social housing projects to help fund his campaign. However, soon there are ructions between the two friends and before you know it, Merad and Arestrup - both sometimes helped, sometimes hindered by new-wave technocrat Anna Mouglalis (Romanzo Criminale, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky) - are pulling strings and levers behind the scenes of French politics to block each other and further their own, the party's and the country's interests, all while trying to avoid ending up in prison through Mutually Assured Destruction.
While the opening episode of the show gives the impression that this is going to be a show about corruption - and certainly that is an element - most of the first season is about political dirty-tricks and manipulations at every level of politics: everything from how to disrupt a local council election through how to manipulate the media and use party rules to counter your enemy's plans through manipulating the Assemblée nationale all the way up to the EU and how to play it off against your own national interests by threatening to leave it to 'ensure your country's sovereignty'. Advised behind the scenes by real-life French politicians, it's a real eye-opener, not least because it actually manages to film inside the Palais Bourbon itself, but also because of the differences between French and British politics - it's a long time since anyone had to take Troskyites and communists seriously here. Well, it used to be, anyway.
If Baron Noir has a message, it's that there are no friends in politics yet if you do screw over your friends in the short-term, chances are that things will go badly for you in the long-term - you just have to know how to balance all the options and bring people back on side. Merad spends most of the season in a whirl of plots and counter-plots, playing one person against another, usually with their knowledge, often by giving inspiring speeches about the left and the need to look after the oppressed/fight the National Front - think Jeremy Corbyn if he had charisma and leadership skills.
Beautifully shot and acted with some cracking music, the show nevertheless isn't without flaws. Merad is implausibly attractive to women of all ages and there's one relationship involving him where not only the audience but the couple themselves are surprised it's taking place at all. It also meanders a little, dropping interesting plotlines and characters, and focusing too much in later episodes on that housing project, which so dominates the first episode. For English speakers, there's also the subtitling, which starts off fine but starts to lose it a little mid-season, such as by switching the French-Algerian's Mercad's reason for entering politics from helping 'les Arabs' to helping 'minorities' and frequently taming down some of the more interesting, fruitier language (it's a real tragedy that the marvellous 'putain ville de merde' ends up as 'this town sucks', for example).
But if you want a House of Cards that's not only European but better than Netflix's, Baron Noir's your boy. Give it a whirl - there's a second season on the way in France next year. Here's a French-language trailer for you to get an idea of what it's like.
In the US: Sundays, 10.30pm, HBO In the UK: Tuesdays, 9.35pm, Sky Atlantic. Starts July 26th
This year, it seems, is the year that US TV has decided it wants not only to go back to school but to go back to school childishly. "Being an adult hard? How about a bunch of teachers who behave like kids? Wouldn't you like to watch that?" seems to be the theory.
We've already had Teachers and Those Who Can't from TV Land and TruTV respectively, offering us just that, and now we have HBO's efforts at the same, Vice Principals, in which Walton Goggins (Justified, The Shield, The Hateful Eight) and Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down, Tropic Thunder) are - yes, you guessed it - vice principals at the same US High School. Goggins is the sweet-talking but ultimately two-faced popular one; McBride is the foul-mouthed, inadequate dick that everyone hates; both hate each other.
Then the principal (Bill Murray - yes, Bill Murray) decides to stand down for the sake of his sick wife, prompting a contest between his deputies to replace him, only for both their dreams to be dashed as outsider Kimberly Hebert Gregory (Devious Maids) gets the top spot instead. My enemy's enemy is my friend so McBride and Goggins unite to defeat their new opponent - but such is their ineptitude, all's that likely is mutually assured destruction instead.
The show has several strands of (attempted) comedy. With McBride co-creating and writing, as per Eastbound and Down, it's not surprise there's his usual parade of attempted alpha male put-downs, extreme dickery and inappropriate teaching methods, here filtered through a more inadequate, more self-aware, less sports-obsessed prism than Kenny Powers. There's also the childish squabbling between McBride and Goggins, and their frequently politically incorrect antagonism towards Gregory's 'smart, sassy black woman' routine - which, subtly, is itself as manufactured as both McBride and Goggins' facades.
But despite all those elements at play, Vice Principals isn't hugely funny, except towards the end of this first episode when the two enemies unite, and largely feels like watered down Eastbound and Down. McBride's ex-wife Busy Philipps (Cougar Town) doesn't get to do much beyond be the butt of his ineptitude, while Shea Whigham as her new husband largely gets to play the unexpectedly nice guy that McBride doesn't quite know how to deal with, without getting to cause any laughs himself.
An almost-interesting looking at failing masculinity and petty power struggles, Vice Principals might get better in its second episode when hostilities take off. The fact that it's a definite two-season, 18-episode run means that it should have a fixed story arc that takes as long as it needs, no more, no less, which is another plus. At the moment, though, it feels like it needs work: must try harder.
About the blog
A UK media blog focusing on the best scripted TV from around the world, with daily news, views, exclusive reviews and good conversation. There's a bit of a bias towards the latest and greatest US TV, but we also cover Scandinavian, Canadian, European and Antipodean TV, as well as UK TV ranging from new Doctor Who to old Z Cars, and BBC4 to S4C.
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I'm Rob Buckley, a freelance journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of, although you might have heard me on Radio 5 Live's Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I've edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for trade magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider and the equally short-lived Death Ray and Filmstar magazines; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it "web site for urban hedonists" The Tribe. I'm freelance now and have contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network and TV Scoop.