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Reviews of US television programmes

October 1, 2014

Third-episode verdict: Forever (US: ABC; UK: Sky 1)

Posted on October 1, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

BarrometerForever.jpgA Barrometer rating of 3

In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, ABC
In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, Sky 1. Starts October 2

Sometimes, it can take a while for a show to get a handle on itself. A pilot can quite often throw a whole slew of ideas at a screen in the hope that something will stick and appeal to the audience. Often, writers won’t even know what works until they’ve seen the pilot for themselves and brought others on board.

And so it is to a reasonable extent with Forever, which stars Ioan Gruffudd as an immortal doctor looking for a cure for his condition by working among the dead at the NYPD mortuary, helping to solve cases.

From the pilot, it was pretty clear that the writers weren’t quite sure what they had on their hands and they knew that it wasn’t exactly a novel show: with Gruffudd also using his centuries of experience and observation to become a veritable Sherlock Holmes, the show effectively was one part Castle, one part Elementary, with just a hint of New Amsterdam.

Even more so, it was "Highlander without sword fights”, with Gruffudd pining over his dead wife, while living in an antique shop with a mortal he adopted during the Second World War who’s aged while he hasn’t (Judd Hirsch), seeing the beginnings of a possible romance with an NYPD cop (Alana De La Garza), having flashbacks to his considerable past and discovering that he has a possible, equally immortal nemesis to deal with in New York. The producers were so aware of what they were doing, they even had an epic Highlander reference at the end of the episode, just to make it clear.

However, time marches on and since then, the show has been scrabbling to find a new place for itself in the world. While not tinkering much with the overall format, the second episode did tighten up on the laughably poor procedural side, with Gruffudd now embarrassingly regularly out-doing Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes when it comes to deductions. And rather than simply gloss over the McGuffin of the piece, the show drops a big hint that perhaps his arch-nemesis might even be someone significant.

Episode three, on the other hand, took the show in a slightly novel direction, making it somewhat the inheritor of the mantel of its ABC predecessor Pushing Daisies. Streamlining the show away from the constant pining, the “how will he get killed and resurrect this time?” trope and the arch nemesis, the show plumped more for the macabre, allowing the show to develop a new foundation as a meditation on death and life, as Gruffudd and De La Garza investigate people who are trying to stay young forever by taking dodgy supplements.

Gruffudd’s relationship with Hirsch becomes more interesting as Gruffudd fears for Hirsch’s life while wanting his own death, Hirsch getting tired of ageing and wanting to live forever. Gruffudd may say in voiceover the traditional platitudes about life only having value if there is death, but the show undermines that by showing that life has value even without death, provided one continues to try to enjoy it, something even immortals can do if they just bother to interact.

The show also tries to steer clear of a romance between De La Garza and Gruffudd, by giving Gruffudd asexual lines and amping up the fact that De La Garza is a widow and already feels like she’s met her one true love - they’re both alive but they’re equally dead because they’re too occupied with the deaths of those they’ve loved. Maybe if they looked to the future instead of the past, they’d both learn to live again.

If this sounds a bit maudlin, it’s not because the show has a great deal of charm, mainly due to Gruffudd but also because of Hirsch, and it also has quite a dark sense of humour - episode three is effectively about those other immortals, zombies, right down to the brain eating. And it’s always willing to poke a little fun at its own mythos and foundations.

The show isn’t brilliant yet and there’s no big draw for the audience, but it’s enjoyable and pleasant. It’s Castle with a bit more edge, a lot more potential and a little less swagger. Give it a try for Gruffudd, at least, because he deserves some success.

Barrometer rating: 3
Rob’s prediction: Touch and go as to whether it’ll last a season, let alone more, but could still make it.

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September 29, 2014

What have you been watching? Including Wolf Hall, Forever, Agents of SHIELD, Plebs and The Blacklist

Posted on September 29, 2014 | 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.

Tele’s starting up again. New tele everywhere! So to cope with the exciting resultant schedule changes and the return of Sunday TV, ‘What have you been watching? will be moving to Friday, which means there’ll be two this week, you lucky people.

Elsewhere, I’ve reviewed the first episodes of a whole bunch of new shows:

Which, actually, covers all the first episodes of all the new shows. Yay.

I’ve also been to the theatre. Ooh!

Wolf Hall (Aldwych, London)
Substantially abridged dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novel about Henry VIII’s ‘fixer’ Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith's son from Putney who first becomes a soldier and then a textile merchant and even lawyer, before eventually becoming the man who manages to convince Henry to split from the Catholic church so that he can marry Anne Boleyn. Starring Ben Miles from Coupling as Cromwell and Nathaniel Parker from The Inspector Lynley Mysteries as Henry, it takes a little while to kick off, but once it does, it’s a surprisingly funny and rude adaptation that’s also moving at times, such as when (spoiler alert) Cromwell’s wife dies. You don’t need to know an awful lot about Tudor history, either, which is going to be a slight mercy for Americans who get to see it now it’s transferring to Broadway. Slightly awkwardly, though, it ends on more of a cliffhanger than the book, which means it feels like anyone watching it needs to see the matching adaptation of Bring Up The Bodies, which we’re going to do on Wednesday.

TV lovers should note that BBC2 is currently adapting both books with Damian Lewis as Henry and Mark Rylance as Cromwell, to air in 2015.

After the jump, the regulars, including some returning shows: The Blacklist, Doctor Who, Forever, Legends, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD and Plebs.

Continue reading "What have you been watching? Including Wolf Hall, Forever, Agents of SHIELD, Plebs and The Blacklist"

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September 26, 2014

Review: How To Get Away With Murder 1x1 (US: ABC; UK: Universal Channel)

Posted on September 26, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

How To Get Away With Murder

In the US: Thursdays, 10/9c, ABC
In the UK: Acquired by Universal Channel. Will air in October

As I mentioned earlier today when reviewing black-ish, ABC’s go-to person when it comes to diversity is Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes. Indeed, this year, as in previous year’s, they’ve gone to her for a new series full of diverse leads, and true to form, she’s delivered them How To Get Away With Murder, a pleasingly diverse legal procedural show that’s based around lawyer and university professor Viola Davis and the students she teaches and eventually recruits to work for her in genuine law cases.

There is, of course, a reason why they keep going back to her - namely that as well as producing diverse shows, she produces crowd-pleasing shows that people actually watch (well, apart from Off The Map obviously). This is typically through a combination of decent casting, soapy characterisation and logic-defying, crazy nuts plotting, with Scandal regularly blowing its audience’s collective mind through plot twists that feel like a somewhat unexpected LSD trip.

How To Get Away With Murder does feel slightly like one of those trips, in as much as it involves a brief flashback to the 70s for us to remember the wonderful The Paper Chase, which followed some incredibly white males through the first year of Harvard Law School under the stern gaze of the extraordinary and equally white and male John Houseman.

How To Get Away With Murder essentially takes The Paper Chase - and indeed the exact scene above - and puts it through the unique filter of Shonda Rhimes. So we’re introduced to a bunch of law students of varying genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations - but minimal personality beyond archetypes - at a university that looks a lot like Harvard but isn’t. Viola Davis (City of Angels, Century City, Traveler, The Andromeda Strain) is the John Houseman of the piece, a fiercely intelligent but practical lecturer who rather than teaching legal theory prefers to teach the practice of law and its numerous sneaky tricks in a class that she calls ‘How To Get Away With Murder’. To win her approval, the students must work as hard as it’s possible to work, back stab, cheat, rim and do anything they can to show that they’re the kind of lawyer she should employ. And rather than do it with an old case study, they’re going to do it with a legal case that Davis is currently defending.

Good format of the week already, isn’t it?

But Rhimes isn’t finished yet. It’s not Rhimes-y enough. Because interspersed with that decent-enough format, we have a flashforward to three months later where the students are busily putting Davis’ teaching into practice to cover up an actual murder. Will they get away with it? And who have they killed - Davis?

We’re still not Rhimes-y enough yet, because bolted onto that, there’s a missing student who may have been killed by her boyfriend; Davis is having an affair with a police officer; everyone else is having affairs with everyone else; and no one’s getting much sleep.

And for me, this is a classic case of over-egging the pudding. I’d have been happy with The Paper Chase 2014. That would have been a fun show. It probably would have been a bit more accurate about the law, too.

And while I don’t want to be the kind of guy who watches a show and says “Hey, wouldn’t this show I just thought of have been much better?”, adding a murder conspiracy plot and all the numerous affairs between people who really aren’t interesting enough to care about yet feels like too much being juggled in a one-hour show. Yes, it works for Scandal, with all its political intrigues and high-adrenaline pace, but it doesn’t really work here with a bunch of kids.

So I really think The Paper Chase 2014, mixing Davis’s classes with her actual cases, would have been a more interesting, better show.

Another problem is that while the Tony-winning, Oscar-nominated Davis is excellent, everyone else is varying degrees of bland, eager and annoying - whether you’ll enjoy the show will essentially be down to whether you like Viola Davis and how much screen time she’ll get in future episodes. The show also balks a little at having too much fun, with everyone seemingly competing for excuses for their affairs: ‘My wife’s got to cancer’, ‘My husband wants us to have a baby and it’s putting a strain on our marriage’, and so on. Just shag, will you, you fictional TV characters. Don’t be miserable about it afterwards.

I’m not convinced the show is going to last. With Davis as the show’s lynchpin and little else, the multiple attractions in Grey’s Anatomy just aren’t available; and without the full-on embrace of the ridiculous, it’s not got the chutzpah of Scandal either. But if you like a long mystery and conspiracy thriller eked out between shagging and lectures, perhaps How To Get Away With Murder is the show for you.

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