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Third-episode verdict: The X-Files (season 10) (US: Fox; UK: Channel 5)

Posted on February 3, 2016 | comments | Bookmark and Share

In the US: Mondays, 8/7c, Fox
In the UK: Mondays, 9pm, Channel 5. Starts February 8

When old TV shows get revived, whether it's Burke's Law, Knight Rider, Charlie's Angels or Full House, all everyone cares about is whether the Olsen Twins, John Forsythe, David Hasselhoff, Gene Barry or Bob Saget are going to be back on our screens as the characters they played in the original. Then it'll be proper.  Then everything will be okay.

What almost no one seems to care about but probably should far more is whether the people behind the scenes are back, too. The reason you loved that TV show in the first place? Almost certainly not just the cast, but the characters, the dialogue, the plots and the mise en scène of the original, none of which were down to the cast. True, new blood may be able to recreate or even better the original - such as with Battlestar Galactica - but chances are, what you need is those creative talents back in the production hot seat.

That's certainly what we should have been paying more attention to with The X-Files. David Duchovny's back! Yay! Gillian Anderson's back! Yay! Mitch Pileggi's back!… (Check's IMDB)… Yay! 

Sure, that's great. But is what we're going to get more like Ronald D Moore's remake of Battlestar Galactica or James Dott's remake of The Invaders? The devil's in the authorial details.

A while ago, I posted a rant arguing that the UK needed more TV shows with longer season lengths because that was the only way we could train up writers, give them experience and give them a career pathway. Who cares if they turned in work that might not be great at first - in a season of 13 or 24 episodes, who'd remember the occasional duff one or who wrote it, I argued.

Now that's true for the novice writer just starting out in a sea of other writers, turfing out the meat and potato filler episodes. But when it's the showrunner? Oh, you remember when he turns in duff ones, because they're the special episodes, the ones reserved for advancing season arcs, expanding characters, redefining shows and so on.

And so it is with Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files. He chose to write the first episode of this tenth season to bring Mulder and Scully to our screens, and if it wasn't clear from the original series and all the series he's tried and failed to run since, it was clear from My Struggle I that he got a bit lucky with The X-Files. Because it was dreadful. Just distilled essence of ridiculousness. I was half-inclined never to watch another episode ever again.

But as I pointed out in my rant, longer season lengths give writers a chance to learn the ropes and give them a career pathway, so they can go on to create things themselves. It's worth perusing the IMDB list of writers given their break and training on the original The X-Files, since many of them have gone on to become the great and the good of TV and film writing and show running. Vince Gilligan? He created Breaking Bad and Better Call SaulAlex Gansa? Homeland and 24. James Wong? The Final Destination series. Howard Gordon? Legends, 24, Homeland and Tyrant. Frank Spotnitz? The Man in the High Castle and Strike Back. The list genuinely does go on. And proves me right.

So the question we should have all been asking ourselves is whether these guys were coming back to write for the show. Thankfully, the answer is yes, because once we got past Chris Carter's mythology-laden, brain-warping, conspiracy-mad first episode, we got straight down to old school X-Files again with Founder's Mutation, thanks to James Wong.

Yes, everyone's a bit older now and you get away with showing ickier things on screen, but this was proper X-Files, with a 'weird thing' of the week to investigate, Mulder and Scully doing their usual routine, and all manner of scary events happening, in proper Wong style. True, if there was an explanation as to how Mulder and Scully got their old jobs at the FBI back, I missed it (is there an FBI reserves list or something?), but despite the best part of two decades having passed, everything was the way it should have been.

Episode three gave us Darin Morgan's effort. While Morgan hasn't really set the world on fire with the shows he's produced since The X-Files (Intruders, Those Who Kill, Fringe, Bionic Woman, Night Stalker), his are probably the best remembered episodes of the show's original run, since they were the funniest: Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose, War of the Coprophages, and Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'. And he didn't let us down with this year's thoroughly amusing Mulder & Scully Meet The Were-Monster, a script 10 years in the making apparently, with Mulder looking back with middle-aged eyes at previous cases, only to realise most of them were scientifically explainable, so reluctantly trudging off after Scully to investigate a lizard-man and bumping into Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords, How To Be A Gentleman) in a Kolchak: The Night Stalker straw hat along the way.

Often hilariously funny thanks to both the writing and Anderson and Duchovny's performances - has Anderson actually laughed on-screen since The X-Files? I don't recall her doing so, but it's a very welcome sight - with dozens of nods to fans along the way, it reminds you how good The X-Files could be, and how many imitators have come, failed and gone since the show aired through being unable to recapture the show's essence.

So writers - good. Get good writers and your show will be good. QED.

Unfortunately, we've three episodes to go in this 'limited series' revival of the show and while one's written by Morgan, the other two are written by Carter. Oh oh. I get the feeling the final two episodes are going to be rubbish. 

That means that it's a hearty thumbs up from me for at least half the series and a worried look to the horizon. Make sure you watch the episodes Carter hasn't scripted, since they're the good ones; the others, I leave to your discretion.

PS My, don't Mulder and Scully both look young in the title sequence?

Barrometer rating: 2
Would the show be better with female leads? No
TMINE's prediction: Ratings are holding up, talks are under way and with the cast willing and able, the limited series format might just prove a sufficient draw for viewers to keep coming back

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Preview: Billions 1x1 (US: Showtime)

Posted on January 14, 2016 | comments | Bookmark and Share

Billions

In the US: Sundays, 10pm ET/PT, Showtime. Starts January 17
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Back when Suits started on the USA Network, it was a refreshingly strong show about lawyers that took a different tack from most legal dramas - it almost never ventured into the courtroom. Instead, it was all about the moves and counter-moves that lawyers made outside the courtroom to force their opponents to concede without the cost and randomness of a trial. Unfortunately, over the years, Suits' real-world chess-playing fell by the wayside, in favour of relationship-based drama and comedy, but the first couple of seasons were hugely enjoyable pieces of Machiavellian manipulation.

A little known fact about Suits is that originally, it was going to be about investment bankers. The show did eventually venture into that realm, where it was clear there was a very powerful pecking order in the world that made those legal eagles look like mere sparrows.

Of course, there's a group of people who make investment bankers look like wrens in the scheme of things: hedge fund managers. Managing billions and potentially worth billions themselves, depending on how you look at them, they're either the oil that prevents the wheels coming off the modern financial world or sociopaths that destroy others purely for their own personal gain.

Billions is a show that gives us Suits to the max, in that a pits a hedge fund giant (Damian Lewis) against America's top lawyer, the district attorney (Paul Giamatti) in a chess match that would make even Harvey Specter balk. Lewis is a genius of analysis, both of figures and people. He's made billions by knowing how to combine the two, deducing who'll do what, why and how to invest accordingly. He's also worked out how to play the PR game - he may be worth billions, but he's given hundreds of millions to 9/11 charities and the families of all his co-workers who died during that tragedy. 

There's also a very strong chance he's made at least part of his fortune through insider trading.

In turn, Giamatti has been raised since birth by his lawyer dad to think through every move and counter move white collar criminals might make. He knows whom to prosecute, when to prosecute and what it'll get him, and he knows how to play the PR game, too.

When an SEC official brings evidence to Giamatti that Lewis might have broken the law, Giamatti has to decide whether now is the time to take down Lewis or whether he's finally met the man who'll break his undefeated prosecuting streak. The best legal chess match in America is about to begin.

But while Billions is in many ways an excellent drama that has all the best qualities of Suits in its heyday, with smart people doing smart things to outwit each other, it's also just a little too Showtime for its own good.

Continue reading "Preview: Billions 1x1 (US: Showtime)"

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What have you been watching? Including Beowulf, Rebellion, 100 Code, Endeavour and American Crime

Posted on January 8, 2016 | comments | Bookmark and Share

It's "What have you been watching?", my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently that I haven't already reviewed and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case I've missed them.

The usual "TMINE recommends" page features links to reviews of all the shows I've ever recommended, and there's also the Reviews A-Z, for when you want to check more or less anything I've reviewed ever. And if you want to know when any of these shows are on in your area, there’s Locate TV - they’ll even email you a weekly schedule.

Things have got off to a quick start in the TV land, all over the world, with new shows airing this week pretty much everywhere the TV industry still has a budget (so not Canada these days). Elsewhere, I've reviewed the first episodes of Cooper Barrett's Guide to Surviving Life (US: Fox) and Byw Celwydd/Living A Lie (UK: S4C), the first three episodes of The Shannara Chronicles (US: MTV) and previewed next week's Idiotsitter (US: Comedy Central); and while I haven't reviewed their latest episodes, since I couldn't be bothered to carry on with them after Christmas, I did give you a flavour of Telenovela (US: NBC) and Superstore (US: NBC), both of which started in earnest this week. 

After the jump then, the regulars, including Grandfathered, Limitless, Supergirl and episode four of The Shannara Chronicles, as well as the return of American Crime, Man Seeking Woman and Endeavour, and a special guest reappearance by The Grinder.

But I did promise you reviews of a few other new shows, and while I didn't manage to get round to Deutschland 83 (you can ask Walter what he thought of it - he can probably ask you about Spin, too, which is on More4 right now), I did manage to watch the rest, as well as a couple of surprise guest new shows.

Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands (UK: ITV; US: Esquire)
If it's on ITV, unless it's a crime drama, period drama or period crime drama, you can be about 95% sure it's going to be rubbish, and Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands does nothing to disprove this rule. 'Based' on the Anglo-Saxon epic, in the sense that it has a few characters with the same names, it sees famed warrior Beowulf (Kieran Bew) return to 'the Shieldlands' (no, not Scandinavia) to mourn the death of his dad, Hrothgar (William Hurt, who seems to be doing a lot of UK TV at the moment). Unfortunately, all manner of beasties, including the 'terrifying' Grendel are lurking around Hrothgar's halls, so Beowulf and his Danish lothario mate are going to have to get out their swords and give him a stabbing.

In just about every sense possible, this is woeful stuff, ranging from the lack of fidelity to the original through to the Primeval-level special effects. While the colour-blind casting that gives us both Supergirl/Homeland's David Harewood and Numbertime's Lolita Chakrabarti is in a sense commendable, it's a little jarring given quite how early it's set. And if you are going to spend your time being ahistorically politically correct, don't spend your entire time justifying it as though it's just turned 1974 and the first female doctor in your hospital has just turned up; also, if you are going to cast an Indian woman as a fifth century AD blacksmith, can you at least hire an Indian woman who looks like she spends all day working iron?

Although Grendel is a little bit creepy at a distance, it's too boring to be a good fantasy show, too PC to be a realistic historical drama and just too badly written on any terms and too badly acted to qualify as any kind of drama. Go and read the poem instead.

Rebellion (Ireland: RTÉ One)
While last year saw Australia and New Zealand celebrating their birth as nations in the cauldron of Gallipoli with a number of shows, this year it's Ireland's turn with Rebellion, a five-part drama that follows the Irish Nationalist movement from the 1916 Easter Rebellion all the way through to the 1919 war for independence. Featuring all manner of famous Irish and Northern Irish actors actually getting to use their own accents for a change (including Game of Thrones' Michelle Fairley and Ian McElhinney), it's a show that doesn't set out to be a piece of propaganda. Indeed, most of those involved in the rebellion seem to spend more of their time fighting each other, cocking things up, debating whether independence would be good and shagging than fighting the English. The show itself also seems more interested in the plight of women at the time than with demonstrating any oppression by the Overlords. But it's a lavish, well put together piece of work, happy to have parts in Gaelic where necessary, and was good enough to make me want to watch at least the second episode - if only to remind myself of all sorts of history I'd learnt at school but completely forgotten about.

100 Code (Sweden: Kanal 5; UK: Sky Atlantic)
Oh goody. Two mismatched cops chasing a serial killer in a show that uses a veneer of intelligence to mask its exploitativeness. I've not seen one of these before. Even the fact it's set in Stockholm and one of the cops is American (oddly enough, Dominic Monaghan from Lost), the other Swedish (Michael Nyqvist from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, John Wick and the best-forgotten Zero Hour and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), isn't that new. But as with pretty much any Nordic Noir (or even crime story these days), originality isn't the thing - what surrounds it is more of interest and pretty everything surrounding the central crime of 100 Code is a lot more interesting than YA serial killer. Here Monaghan is doing an Insomnia, screwed up and sleeping drug-taking because he accidentally shot his partner; meanwhile, Nyqvist is desperate to give up being a cop so he can be a security guard and spend more time with his teenage daughter.

But what separates 100 Code from a lot of other shows, beyond its incorrect use of Greek myth, having half the dialogue in Swedish and acting like a Stockholm travelogue the whole time ("It's the Venice of the North - look at this lovely vista"), is that when it's not pretentiously exploring its own arse, it's frequently funny. Monaghan is by no means hard-boiled, getting travel sick in cars, boats, and aeroplanes, and doesn't know how to drive in Stockholm, so frequently has accidents. Nyqvist's recipe-centric relationship with his daughter is amusingly quirky. And the Swedes are not taking any sh*t from Monaghan and entertainingly exclude him at every possible opportunity, usually linguistically.

I'm going to keep watching since Peter Eggers (Anno 1790) is in the cast - although since he's not turned up yet, I suspect he might turn out to be the killer - but also because it's nice to see Nyqvist demonstrating just how good an actor he is in native language.

Continue reading "What have you been watching? Including Beowulf, Rebellion, 100 Code, Endeavour and American Crime"

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