Review: Black Box 1×1 (ABC)

Kelly Reilly in Black Box

In the US: Thursdays, 10/9c, ABC

Mental health is so hot right now. I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s a subject for serious examination in drama or that it’s something that is thoughtfully used in characterisation. I mean it’s a great gimmick.

Time was when dramas would have set-ups like “two brothers are private detectives”, “he’s a Vietnam vet with a super helicopter”, “he’s an angel wandering the Earth helping people” and the like. But you can only have so many of those unique set-ups before you start to repeat yourself.

Mental health issues, by contrast, used to be the motivations for crimes, not something that could affect a hero, because it was unmanly. Well, maybe PTSD so they could have really manly flashbacks to Nam.

Thankfully, those times are gone and it’s all change. With first Monk giving us the OCD detective and then Touching Evil giving us the slightly lobotomised detective, TV has worked out how valuable these personality quirks can be. Why, right now, on TV we’ve got Asperger’s aplenty (Community, The Bridge, Hannibal, Parenthood) and the new top, post-Silver Linings Playbook condition, bipolar disorder, has been jaunting around both Homeland and Mind Games, giving them all sorts of entirely medically accurate depictions of how helpful mental health issues can be.

Producers have also worked out thanks to medical shows such as House, Mental and 3lbs that ‘brain weirdness’, to use it its technical definition, can be really entertaining in guest characters as well. So what better than a show that features not just lots of supporting cast weirdness but also a central character who has the bipolar, hey?

Black Box is such a show – and it turns out that despite its having not just the delightful Kelly Reilly as the lead as well as no lesser actress than Vanessa Redgrave as her psychiatrist, a whole lot of things could be better.

Reilly, putting on her best US accents, is a talented neurologist/doctor who is also bipolar. As long as she’s on her meds, she’s fine, but believing that medication stops those with mental health issues from achieving their true potential or even being truly happy by coming to accept themselves, she has a history of ‘non-compliance’. The result is that sometimes she’s manic and productive, other times she’s crazy, hallucinating, doing all kinds of bad things, including almost committing suicide. Yet somehow it makes her a better doctor.

Gosh, how quirky and interesting. Gosh how almost unwatchable.

Here’s a trailer.

Continue reading “Review: Black Box 1×1 (ABC)”

The Wednesday Play: The Lie (1970)

Ingmar Bergman is obviously best known as a film director, but intriguingly, back in 1970, he wrote a play for British television called The Lie. To be strictly accurate, it was commissioned by the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation on behalf of European members participating in ‘The Largest Theatre in the World’ – a project to have a play broadcast simultaneously in several languages across Europe – and the BBC carried the UK version as part of its Play for Today strand.

This was directed by Alan Bridges and starred Frank Finlay and Gemma Jomes as a married couple with a not especially great relationship. Finlay’s character is being over-looked in favour of younger men at work, while Jones spends most of her time with her mentally ill brother (Joss Ackland) and her lover (John Carson). The only things that keep the two together are lies. And then the lies get exposed.

Sounds as cheery as most Bergman works, hey? Well, it’s this week’s Wednesday’s Play and you can watch it below. Enjoy!

Interestingly, despite The Lie being a European project, Alex Segal directed a version in 1973 in the US for CBS’s Playhouse 90 that starred George Segal, Shirley Knight Hopkins, Robert Culp, Victor Buono and William Daniels.

UPDATE: Now with newly working video, thanks to Chaim

News: Patrick Stewart’s Blunt Talk, A&E’s Les Revenants remake, Star Wars cast to return + more

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Preview: Penny Dreadful 1×1 (Showtime/Sky Atlantic)

In the US: Sundays, 10pm ET/PT, Showtime. Starts May 11
In the UK: Will air on Sky Atlantic in May

Sometimes, it’s nice to have a fresh pair eyes come to a genre, free of its cliches, unwritten expectations and rules, and history, and throw everything up in the air to create something new and different. If that writer or director is also extremely talented, so much the better, since they can perhaps create a new ‘paradigm’ for that genre that will change it forever.

Look at literary history and you’ll see how neophytes have created some of horror’s greatest icons: consider, for example, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson, 19th century authors who without any history of writing horror came fresh to it and created Dracula, Frankenstein, Dorian Gray and Dr Jekyll.

That, though, is the utopian vision. The flipside, of course, is that the new arrival, no matter how talented they are, simply won’t know what hoary old tropes they’re recycling and will add precisely nothing, no matter how well written it is.

So how much should you be looking forward to the self-consciously titled Penny Dreadful, a US-UK co-production between Showtime and Sky Atlantic, that’s written by no lesser a scribe than John Logan and exec produced by Sam Mendes? Neither has done much by way of horror but still have the likes of Skyfall, Gladiator, Coriolanus and American Beauty under their belts.

The series, as you might imagine all those of you who know what a penny dreadful was, is a Victorian horror show. It pulls together the acting talents of Timothy Dalton, Josh Hartnett, Eva Green, Billie Piper, Rory Kinnear, Helen McRory and Simon Russell Beale, to name but a few, and imagines a London where the works of Shelley, Wilde and co are all true and Dracula, Gray and other creatures of the night really do skulk in the dark. It’s up to Dalton, Green and Hartnett to rescue those in peril from the supernatural horrors that are mere legends.

Revolutionary or merely Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen again? If you’re in the US, you can watch and find out below; the rest of you can watch the trailer then follow me after the jump and I’ll let you know.

Continue reading “Preview: Penny Dreadful 1×1 (Showtime/Sky Atlantic)”


Preview: Playing House 1×1 (USA)

In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, USA. Starts April 29

Please! Won’t somebody stop them?

Who’s ‘they’, you might ask. Good question, because there’s a lot of theys who need stopping. The first they is the USA Network, which is busily trying to move from making character-based dramas – most of which are best described as dramedies – into making full-on comedies. It’s first effort, a remake of Channel 4’s Sirens, was pretty mediocre, and now we have the even more mediocre Playing House. USA certainly needs stopping.

Our next ‘they’ who need stopping are best friends who want to write and star in TV shows together as thinly veiled versions of themselves and their own friendship. While two friends starring together obviously can work – look at True Detective, for example – it’s when they get to write it as well and assume that their hilarious friendship will transfer well to the small screen that the issues arise. Look at Doll and Em and Best Friends Forever: very accurate portrayals of friendship that are not in the slightest bit funny to outside observers. These people need stopping.

That latter show, though, takes us to our last ‘they’ – Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair. For it was they who came up with that terrifyingly unfunny NBC ‘comedy’, which mostly involved them gurning at one another and not being especially plausible as human beings, so was rightly cancelled after about seven seconds. Yet somehow they’ve managed to garner themselves another show, this time on NBC’s sister network USA, where they do pretty much exactly the same thing.

Please. Won’t somebody stop them?

This time the plot is that Parham is married and about to have a baby, St. Clair is a high-flying exec. The two have been best friends since childhood and when Parham throws her baby shower, it accidentally comes out that her husband really enjoys webcamming with a German woman who likes putting biscuit tins and other things up her bottom. As does he. Naturally, the marriage breaks down and St Clair being the best friend she is drops everything, including her job, to move in with Parham to help her bring up the baby.

And as with Best Friends Forever, this feels like a show where the two real-life best friends are having an awful lot of fun together and really want us to know how crazy and wacky their friendship is, but ultimately it has zero in common with reality. Reality and this are not even ships passing in the night so much as a day-loving flying unicorn heading off to the planet Narg and a 43-year-old chartered quantity surveyor from a small village outside Surbiton who only does night shifts. 

For starters, as with BFF, well drawn as the female characters might be, the men appear to have been plotted from some imagined version of men gleaned by two teenage girls eavesdropping a table of psychologists at a “pathological neuroses” conference on their first trip out from the all girls catholic school since puberty struck. The male characters here may look like men, they’re even played by men, but that’s purely an optical illusion.

Then there’s the idea of what a ‘high flying exec’ might be. Apparently, if you’re a high flying exec, trusted by a company for 10 years to conduct million-dollar business deals in Mandarin, you have zero assertiveness, a total lack of self-confidence, are only allowed two days off per year at most, even at weekends, one night without sleep will incapacitate you and your company will fire you for a single bad business meeting. This is the high-flying exec imagined by comedy performers who have never had real jobs so have only watched really bad TV shows and read young-adult fiction as research.

Of course, lack of verisimilitude isn’t in and of itself a killer with a comedy, providing it’s funny, and if you like to watch a whole bunch of jokes you’ve seen before, just done sillier, with a little bit of added racism for luck, and by people who really want you to think they’re both lovable and funny, then maybe this is the show for you. But if you have standards, you’re going to be finding yourselves wanting Ming the Merciless to rain hot hail upon the Earth, purely in the hope that among the millions made homeless, some of the people involved in this will be collateral damage. It’ll be a price worth paying. And it should certainly stop ‘them’.

Here’s a trailer or two.