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The BarrometerA Barrometer rating of 3

Third-episode verdict: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend 1×1 (US: The CW)

In the US: Mondays, 8/7c, The CW

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend has been something of a puzzler for me. Ever since I saw the trailer, I was looking forward to it, but the pilot was a surprising disappointment and having watched the first three episodes, I’m now giving up. And the problem has been puzzling out exactly why it hasn’t been working for me.

On paper, it should be a much-watch, being very clever, innovative, satirical and, despite the title, feminist. Starring the show’s co-creator Rachel Bloom, it sees a successful New York attorney quit her job and fly to small-town California to chase after the boy she had a summer camp romance with a decade previously. Suddenly a big fish in a small pond, she nevertheless fails to take advantage of her opportunities, as well as the other interesting men around her who might make better choices of partner, in favour of chasing after her ‘ex’, single-white-femaling his current girlfriend and so on.

The show plays with meta-analysis, sending up romcoms, comedies, musicals and various other genres, in a clever, self-mocking but also mocking feminist analysis of society and the things it does to women, embracing and using the bugbear of the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend stereotype to explore its point. It even has nifty song and dance numbers that take in everything from Enchanted to Katy Perry.

Unfortunately, I think the show’s biggest problem is that you have to find mental health problems unproblematically funny. Or at least not to feel slightly concerned for a psychotic, hallucinating former pill-pusher whose last happy moment in life had occurred 10 years previously. TV fiction is obviously filled with plenty of protagonists who are mentally disturbed, sometimes for comedic effect, whether it’s Gurney Slade, Des Kinvig, Carrie Mathison, Nurse Jackie or Mr Robot. But those characters’ shows all felt like they were on the side of their protagonists and sympathetic towards them. 

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, however, seems to keep an ironic distance from its subject and is half-laughing at her as it runs with her to California. At times, it’s almost Equus-like, the third episode giving us a look into the sad, bleak life of her new best friend, as if to say “Sure’s, she’s got problems, but she’s sane; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is happy, even as she’s throwing her life away and everyone around her knows it.” Yet it also is clear that reality’s still better than delusion and that her happiness is not something truly to be envied.

If this were on Showtime as originally intended and with a little less ironic detachment, it might work, feeling like a dark, human satire, but on The CW it feels more like the cool kids mocking the odd kids in the corner.

Barrometer rating: 3
Rob’s prediction: I’d be surprised if it gets another season, but I’m surprised it’s on The CW in the first place so miracles could still happen.

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What have you been watching? Including Hamlet (NT Live/Barbican), Limitless and The Player

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.

So I had a last minute ‘Cumberemergency’ on Friday, which meant that I suddenly didn’t have the time to write ‘What have you been watching?’ Sorry about that, but hopefully, this will make it up to you.

Last week on the blog, I reviewed a big slew of first episodes from all manner of different countries:

And today I passed a third-episode verdict on BBC America/BBC Two’s The Last Kingdom.

That means that after the jump, you can find reviews of the latest episodes of 800 Words, Arrow, Blindspot, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, CSI, Doctor Who, The Flash, Grandfathered, Limitless, The Player, Y Gwyll and You’re The Worst. Yes CSI, since I finally got around to watch the final ever episode of that.

One of those shows is getting promoted to regular. Can you guess which one it is? Not CSI, obviously.

(Actually, I haven’t managed to watch the very latest episodes of either Y Gwyll or The Beautiful Lie, because it’s really Sunday and this is a scheduled post I’m writing before both of them have aired. I’ll let you know about them next time.)

I did try to watch the first episode of Con Man as well. However, I gave up 5 minutes when it started becoming cringe comedy on the plane and Tudyk tried to get a fan to give up his seat for him. No extended music sequences in my TV shows, no cringe comedy in my comedies – those rules are sacred.

Anyway, let’s talk about the ‘Cumberemergency’, since I was called upon at the last minute to accompany my mother-in-law to the theatre. Or was it a movie? Maybe it was both. Or neither.

Hamlet (The Barbican)
The National Theatre’s latest version of Hamlet, performed at the Barbican and starring that Benedict Cumberbatch from off the telly. Except it was one of those NT Live things where they film the play as it’s performed and beam it into cinemas everywhere. Except the cinema in question was at the Barbican, so they might as well have just knocked a hole in the wall and let us look through it.

Anyway, Hamlet‘s one of those plays where every director tries to make his or her mark by doing something radically different. The last version I saw at the Barbican was the Stephen Dillane (The One Game, The Tunnel, Hunted, Game of Thrones) one where he went naked for a scene.

On top of that, Hamlet exists in three different versions, some which have scenes that aren’t in the others. The result is that I always forget what’s in the play and spend the whole time thinking “I don’t remember this. Is this in the original?”

In this version, our Benedict is playing a very bereaved, but generally good-egg Hamlet, who’s a bit annoyed his mum’s remarrying so soon after his dad died – except his dad’s ghost reveals that actually, he was murdered. He doesn’t get very pissed off like Mel Gibson or naked like Dillane, but does plot his revenge, all while his girlfriend goes super-loopy.

Unfortunately, the NT Live experience is basically the worst of both worlds. Despite my flippancy, the NT production does look very innovative, interesting and surprisingly funny, giving all the scenes genuine meaning. Bennie gives a great performance as Hamlet, making interesting choices such as the removal of any hint of sarcasm from the ‘what a piece of work is man’ monologue to make him a disappointed optimist rather than an embittered child-man. Siân Brook is marvellously barking as Ophelia. Ciaran Hinds’s Claudius is the surprising weak link, straining to effect a Yorkshire accent for no discernable reason, but still a decent stage presence.

But any sense of theatre’s immediacy is lost in the cinema. It looks nice, but you don’t feel anything, because the actors aren’t there on stage in front of you. Similarly, it’s not cinematic enough, despite the director’s best efforts to include crane shots and the like, for you to get the benefits of the directorial options and camerawork available to movies.

The play’s split into two acts, the first 2h, the second 1h, and the first certainly feels the full 2h as a result of these problems. It’s not the production’s fault, it’s simply a problem of the medium.

So don’t do NT Live if you can. The play’s the thing, after all.

Continue reading “What have you been watching? Including Hamlet (NT Live/Barbican), Limitless and The Player”

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The BarrometerA Barrometer rating of 3

Third-episode verdict: The Last Kingdom (US: BBC America; UK: BBC Two)

In the US: Saturdays, 10/9c, BBC America
In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, BBC Two

It seems that it’s not just US TV that’s fallen for this season’s “crap first episode, much improved second episode” rule – UK TV in the form of The Last Kingdom is doing the exact same thing. True, it’s a co-production between BBC America and BBC Two, but it’s interesting that this seems to be the new rule on both sides of the Atlantic. Perhaps it’s time for the return of the ‘pilot movie’ to give shows enough time to both establish the ground rules and then settle down to telling the story?

A dramatisation of Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Saxon Stories’ (how much did he want to call them the Saxon Chronicles, I wonder?), The Last Kingdom tells the story of how King Alfred managed to defend England against the Vikings and set the foundation stones for a future unified England. Unfortunately, episode one was a tedious, uninvolving mess that made all the mistakes of modern TV historical drama but without having any of the virtues. In particular, it had a desperately uninteresting hero Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon), a Saxon noble raised by Danes, who discovers in adult life that neither side really likes him.

I was very tempted to give up after the first episode as a result, but as King Alfred was a no show in the first episode, I decided to hang on in there until he made his appearance. And I’m glad I did, because Alfred is the show’s saving grace – a very different portrayal than we’re used to of the wise king who moonlit as a shoddy locum baker.

Here, he is a coldly calculating yet pious man who also suffers from terrible pains and David Dawson gives a blinding performance as the invariably cleverest nobleman in the room.

The trouble is that while Dawson’s great to watch, taking Alfred in an unsuspected direction, and Cornwell’s characterisation gives him a lot to work with, the rest of The Last Kingdom is considerably less interesting. Indeed, the show is almost the mirror image of Vikings in that as soon as we start dealing with anyone even slightly Scandinavian, the show becomes terribly, terribly stupid and trite. As I said when I reviewed the first episode, the show could really have benefitted from watching Vikings, just to learn how to make them interesting and not complete idiots – and to learn the sunlight really isn’t the enemy of good drama.

That’s meant the second and third episodes have varied in watchability as we’ve seen increasing amounts of both our hero and the vikings. The second episode was the superior of the two, as we also had Alec Newman (Frank Herbert’s Dune, Spooks, Star Trek: Enterprise, Rogue, Waterloo Road, The Bastard Executioner) as Æthelred, Alfred’s elder brother, who is as well drawn and portrayed as Alfred is himself. Unfortunately, episode three was more interested in Uhtred and his girlfriend Brida.

The Last Kingdom is at its best when dealing with Alfred and to a lesser extent the Saxons, where it’s fascinating and engaging, at its worst when it’s dealing with the vikings, when it becomes eminently missable, hokey and historically dodgy. I can only hope that as the show progresses, Uthred simply becomes more Saxon, since he might then be interesting. Until then, though, I’m equivocating. I want to see more Alfred, but I’m concerned I’m just going to get loads of Uthred, worrying about whether he’s going to get some land. I’ll let you know next episode how it goes.

Barrometer rating: 3
TMINE prediction: Probably won’t make it to the second season, since it’ll offend historical purists with its frequent distortions, and offend regular viewers who quite fancied a new Game of Thrones. But BBC America and BBC Two don’t place as much of a premium on ratings as other networks so it might get a stay of execution.