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Season review: Jessica Jones (Netflix)

Posted on November 24, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Jessica Jones

In the US/UK: All 13 episodes are available on Netflix

When superhero comic books first became popular in the 20th century, it was largely because they were fantasies. Male fantasies for boys. Superman may have been a fantasy of immigration, but it was also about a mild-mannered man who could never reveal his all-conquering power to anyone, not even the woman he loved from afar. Of course, if she knew what he was really like, then she'd fall into his arms without a moment's hesitation.

Batman? A boy orphaned by crime who devotes himself to destroying those who would make him feel frightened. The Hulk? A 'milksop' scientist with a terrible temper that others better not unleash by bullying him. Spider-man? A nerdy boy with pretty much the same issues as Superman. Captain America? A man who could defeat the Nazis while remaining true and good and honourable.

You get the picture. Lots and lots of power fantasies for lonely boys.

Superheroines took a while to appear and represented different kinds of fantasy. The first, Wonder Woman, was originally intended as both a male and female fantasy - a precursor to a better, future, female-dominated world, with Wonder Woman an icon of feminine power that women could embrace and men could accept. But with a slightly kinky subtext and male authors, her popularity often stemmed from… other sources. Future superheroines didn't fare much better, and frequently fared much worse.

Which meant for decades, many girls and women found comic books to be female-unfriendly areas that were practically a panopticon of the male gaze. There were plenty who became involved or who became readers, but they were the exceptions. And although male authors came along who tried to make female characters less fantasies than they had been before, that was pretty much the rule.

That was even the case when comic books started being adapted into movies. Think Sue Storm perpetually having to disrobe in the street in Fantastic Four. Think Black Widow in lingerie shots in Iron Man 2. That Wonder Woman movie? Only just being made, just as we're about to get our third series of Batman and Superman movies in the past 40 years. And try to find superheroine merchandise from those movies for your daughters if you dare

But the times have been a changing, of course. Have a look on Facebook and you'll discover that more than 50% of the people who identify as comic book fans are women. And while only 3% of the people who'll step into a comic book store are women, more than half of those who read digital comics are women.

Marvel, of course, has been doing rather well at the movie with its comic book adaptations. However, it's got considerable stick over the years for not giving any superheroines their own movies - particularly Black Widow. Now that's changing, with a Captain Marvel movie due… in 2019, a full 11 years after Iron Man came out. 

On TV, of course, we've already had Marvel's Agent Carter, except she's not a superheroine, per se. But finally, we have our first, fully fledged superheroine TV show, the second of this year's Marvel's Netflix 'Defenders' shows following Daredevil - Jessica Jones. And what's interesting about Jessica Jones is that despite being based on a character and a story created by two men, I think what we have is the first instance of an on-screen superheroine who's there for a female audience and who's a female fantasy.

Or should that be nightmare? It could be both. After all, it's got David Tennant in it.

Beware: some spoilers ahoy.

Continue reading "Season review: Jessica Jones (Netflix)"

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Review: Man Seeking Woman 1x1 (US: FXX)

Posted on January 15, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Man Seeking Woman

In the US: Wednesdays, 10:30pm, FXX

Being newly single after a long-term relationship is wretched. After months or years being with someone, suddenly you’re all by yourself again. Soon, you’re discovering that the world’s moved on without you - everyone decent is now in a relationship and how people date and are expected to act on dates has changed since you were last ‘on the market'. Imagine both the misery… and the potential for comedy.

Indeed, for most TV networks, just that scenario would be sufficient. But FX and new spin-off channel FXX are rapidly shaping up to be the producers of some of the most innovative programming on US TV, even compared to premium cable channels such as HBO and Showtime. While it’s best if we overlook Marriage, You’re The Worst was the uncontested, very edgy winner of last year’s romcom wars and Tyrant, The Strain, The Bridge (US) and The Americans have all at least tried to do something different and equally edgy in their own ways.

Now we have Man Seeking Woman, developed by showrunner Simon Rich from his collection of short stories The Last Girlfriend on Earth. The show has little to do with the book itself, being a continuous storyline about what happens when twentysomething nerd Josh Greenberg (Jay Baruchel of She’s Out of My League fame) splits up from his girlfriend Maggie (Maya Erskine from Amazon’s Betas) and re-enters the dating scene, although at times it does feel like a collection of sketches thrust together rather than a thematically cohesive whole.

What makes Man Seeking Woman different is that rather than being a series of simple encounters between Baruchel and various women, the show instead highlights how wretched each scenario is using the power of fantasy made real. Worried that your blind date is going to turn out to be less than pulchritudinous? Guess what. She’s a troll. Really - she’s come from the forests of Sweden and eats out of dumpsters. Think that your ex’s new boyfriend is likely to be the worst human alive? Turns out he’s Adolf Hitler who’s faked his own death. What’s he going to make of the fact you’re Jewish, I wonder.

Each of these is played entirely seriously, with no one blinking an eyelid at their improbability - and the fact that Baruchel always ends up having to apologise for his bad behaviour (“I’m not the one you have to apologise to.” “I’m sorry, Hitler” “I don’t think he can hear you.”). Much of the joy of the show is the bizarre directions it goes in that quite often precisely sum up a feeling not previously verbalised but universally recognisable.

But in common with You’re The Worst, it’s slightly male gaze - as the title suggests, this is man seeking woman, not woman seeking man, and the idea, for example, that a woman travelling late on a Friday night on the Chicago L by herself would be delighted to have a guy obviously following her and then would give him her business card is very much an extreme male fantasy. But to a certain extent the show knows it - wait till you see how that encounter plays out - and sometimes turns its gaze on Baruchel, pointing out that while his date may be a troll, it’s not like he goes to the gym much, is it?

The show also tries to get by too much purely on the strengths of its fantasy scenarios, with Baruchel’s character not especially likeable and his best friend (Eric André from Don’t Trust The B----) the kind of guy who calls women ‘gash’. You’re not really invested in the characters, so much as seeing what the next fantasy sketch is.

Man Seeking Woman works best as a sort of longer form, romcom version of Portlandia, rather than as a sitcom per se. But it’s intermittently very funny, incisive and imaginative, so definitely worth a try.

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What did you watch this week? Including The Fall, Harry, Hannibal, The Rum Diary and Don't Trust The B----

Posted on May 24, 2013 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

It's "What did you watch this week?", my chance to tell you what I movies and TV I've watched this week that I haven't already reviewed and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case I've missed them.

First, the usual recommendations, which are somewhat dwindling now 'summer' has arrived:

  • Continuum (Showcase/SyFy)
  • The Daily Show (Comedy Central)
  • Don't Trust The B---- (ABC)
  • The Fall (BBC2/Netflix)
  • Hannibal (NBC/Sky Living)

These are all going to be on in either the UK or the US, perhaps even both, but I can't be sure which.

I tried a few new shows this week. I'll save my thoughts on NBC's Save Me for a full review, but here's what I thought of the others:

The Fall (BBC2/Netflix)
Gillian Anderson in what is essentially Prime Suspect 20 years on – writer Allan Cubitt also wrote Prime Suspect 2 – and, for my money, almost as good. Anderson plays a Met police detective superintendent who goes to Belfast to audit an investigation into a murder. However, she quickly realises that she's chasing a serial killer (Jamie Dornan). Rather than this being a whodunnit, we know from the beginning of Dornan's culpability – instead, this a dual character piece that examines the equally cool, equally focused killer and cop. The investigation, which also touches on the different and highly political nature of policing in Northern Ireland (the police are all armed and the police station is more like a fort), is handled as realistically and as sensitively as can be, but there are disturbing scenes, despite the overall lack of any blood or violence.

Anderson is great as the cop, who unlike Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison, doesn't need to convince anyone of her abilities and is happy to have casual sex with whomever she pleases without apology, rather than agonise over relationships; Dornan's equally good as the killer, who blends right in and even has a young daughter to care after. The writing's first rate, although there are a few slaps-forehead moments and obviously, it's yet another serial killer show. There's also lots of good roles for both men and women. Weirdly, Archie Punjab from The Good Wife shows up as a motorcycle-riding pathologist.

Definitely one to watch – it's going on the recommended list. American readers – this has been acquired by Netflix and shoot be available from the 28th of this month, but you can watch the first episode below.

Harry (TV3)
A six-part New Zealand series about a widowered cop with a teenage daughter and who's doing his best to hunt down some violent robbers in a poor community. He has to work against the higher-ups, who are more concerned by headlines that the communities they police and against the demands of his job in raising his daughter. So far, so ordinary, you might think, and largely it is, despite the presence of Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) as Harry's boss, complete with his normal NZ/Australian accent. What's more interesting is that Harry is co-written by the star, Oscar Kightley, a Maori actor, and the show is bilingual and set largely in the Maori community. It's got more in common with UK police shows than with US shows, although there are interesting differences, but beyond the cultural issues and twists, there's not much here that you won't have seen before.

Now, some thoughts on some of the regulars and some of the shows I'm still trying:

  • Arrested Development (Netflix): In preparation for the fourth Netflix-exclusive season, I'm trying once again to get into the original series. I'm up to about episode 13 and there have been a couple of episodes where I've 'got' what everyone loves about the show, but it's not as funny as it should be.
  • Don't Trust The B---- (ABC): The final batch of episodes are now available to stream from the ABC web site. Such a disappointment that the show was cancelled, since there's some real dark originality in these episodes.
  • Hannibal (NBC/Sky Living): Superbly featuring a cameo by Lance Henriksen (Millennium), this week's episode minimised the normal body horror slightly in favour of one of its other themes: the horror of madness, with Will becoming increasingly unhinged and worried for his own sanity. However, the most disturbing revelations are another character's and left until last. I'm still deeply impressed by the show, and if NBC cancel it, they deserve everything they're going to get. I've also just realised that Caroline Dhavernas (Dr Bloom) was the star of Bryan Fuller's Wonderfalls, which shows you just what a loyal guy he is.

And in movies:

The Rum Diary
Directed by Bruce Robinson (Withnail and I), based on a novel by Hunter S Thompson, starring Johnny Depp, Amber Heard and Aaron Eckhart, it should all be great, huh? The novel certainly has an interesting story: Thompson wrote it in the 60s but it was never published until Depp found it lying around and persuaded Thompson to unleash it on the world. To be honest, it's not a great novel: set on Puerto Rico, it lacks voice, although you get some of the hints of Thompson's future themes (substance abuse, misogyny), and is really a mood piece about a journalist finding his way on the island.

The film, however, takes all of that and runs with it. Sharing little of the plot or dialogue, and losing a lot of the characters, it's essentially a prequel to Thompson's line, reconstructing the whole story so that it's about how a journalist finds his voice in fighting against rich interests. With minor elements of the novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and even Withnail and I, it's a whole lot better than the book, too, ditching the misogyny and aimlessness in favour of a much stronger narrative drive, although it still shares some unwelcome elements, including a rape scene (mercifully different from the book's deeply unpleasant version). Johnny Depp returns to form as Paul Kemp, while Heard is clearly a little out of her depth at this stage in her career. There are some funny moments, but it's not a movie to go out of your way to see, and doesn't come close to the best of any of those involved.

"What did you watch this week?" is your chance to recommend to friends and fellow blog readers the TV and films that they might be missing or should avoid - and for me to do mini-reviews of everything I've watched. Since we live in the fabulous world of Internet catch-up services like the iPlayer and Hulu, why not tell your fellow readers what you've seen so they can see the good stuff they might have missed?

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