What have you been watching? Including You are Wanted, Twin Peaks, GLOW and Ronny Chieng

You Are Wanted

It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you each week what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently and your chance to recommend anything you’ve been watching. Anything good?

Summer’s nearly here. Ignore the sunshine that may (or may not) be outside your window, because the true signs of summer are new TV shows arriving on our screens. Things should be hotting up by the end of the month, but already this week I’ve covered Will (US: TNT) and Snowfall (US: FX) and passed a third-episode verdict on Riviera (UK: Sky Atlantic).

But we’re not quite there yet, so although I’ll be looking at the usual regulars after the jump, I’ve been filling my empty days with some more catch-up TV. So follow me after the jump where not only will we be talking about the latest episodes of GLOWRonny Chieng – International Student and Twin Peaks, I’ll also be chatting about the tail end of You Are Wanted. See you in a mo…

Shows I’ve been watching but not recommending

Glow (Netflix)

1×5

Not being the biggest of WWE fans, it had never occurred to me that it’s basically just a big soap opera, so thanks to GLOW for opening my eyes there. But also a good episode for the female characters as they begin to find their feet and themselves.

Reviews: Episode 1

You Are Wanted (Amazon)

1×3-1×6

For a while there, You Are Wanted appeared to be a techno thriller with something to say about personal information, our need for privacy and our vulnerability to hackers if they acquire access to systems both private and governmental. For about half of episode three, it almost became a modern-day version of 80s West German nuclear thriller Gambit, with everything being revealed to be an attempt to altruistically expose this issue to the world. Sure, pretty much everything technical is nonsense and near magic, undermining any sense of reality, but its heart is in the right place.

Unfortunately, it goes a bit pear-shaped after that, with our hero facing a master arch criminal who is of course known to him in a somewhat ordinary plot about Big Brother watching you, while having to recruit allies who live in secret basements in Chinese restaurants. When it brings in WikiLeaks as heroes (good luck with that…) at the end, it all falls apart.

Slightly problematically, too, is the fact our hero is a dick. A cheating dick who goes around shouting in people’s faces a lot and manhandling them. Frankly, you want terrible things to happen to him.

Not the best written of shows, full of dramatic clichés that make it feel like it wants to be a US show but can’t only imitate, You Are Wanted also highlights the inevitable quality issues in which a star also writes and directs the piece. Yet it’s not awful and it’s better than a whole bunch of other shows I could mention. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t put Amazon off making more German series – and that the next one’s better.

Reviews: First episode; second episode

The recommended list

Ronny Chieng – International Student (Australia: ABC)

1×5 – For The Love Of Theatre(Er)(Her)

Without co-writer Greg Larsen on board this episode, proceedings return from the land of Spaced to give us something a bit more regular albeit still reasonably meta. The ongoing “will they, won’t they?” storyline returns, of course, but in the context of a stand-up competition at which Ronny discovers that his “persona” (ie him) is actually a funny character. Gosh, doesn’t that sound familiar and a bit Doctor Ken? Some good, near-the-knuckle moments about writing Asian characters, too, but the show could do with Larsen back again soon, by the looks of it.

Reviews: First two episodes

Twin Peaks (US: Showtime; UK: Sky Atlantic)

3×9

While nothing could be as amazingly out there as the previous episode (although never say never), this was much more familiar territory, with the action returning to the main plots, including some forgotten almost since the first episode, but with a far greater sense that there was some end point with an explanation that everything was aiming towards. Despite not trying to hit the visual highs of the previous episodes, there was still plenty of strangeness that echoed the original’s “The owls are not what they seem” et al in the dialogue and actions, too.

ReviewsFirst two episodes




  • Mark Carroll

    We have been rewatching “The Man in the High Castle”. Still in season one and enjoying it, possibly more than the first time around. I’d forgotten how the way it works out is that I tend to end up liking the occupiers, whoops.

    “Preacher” is coming along okay. Not amazing but there’s not much else worth watching. I’m usually about an episode behind, probably more so in the near future.

    I did get to finish of season one of “The Bureau”, that was good. I’ll move onto the second season later this summer. None of my family are into it.

    • I’m pretty sure everyone likes the Germans and the Japanese more than the tedious Americans (although the antique shop dealer does at least have some personality) in The Man in the High Castle. It almost feels deliberate

      Glad you liked The Bureau! Sorry to hear about your family – what can you do to re-educate them?

  • JustStark

    I spent a lot of time finishing off The Whispers before it left Now! TV!, and then I went back and looked up your review, to see you reckoned it really dropped off in the last half. I’d be a bit more generous: I think it’s still reasonably creepy until the last quarter. It divides fairly neatly, I think, into first half: they have no idea what’s going on, all is creepy; third quarter: they start to fight back, but the alien is able to escape by turning their humanity against them, which I thought was a nice twist; and then last few episodes which make up the ending, where it really all falls apart as everything from small to large just stops making sense, from the actions of the humans (surely it’s obvious who the alien’s primary target would be? The audience can spot it, why can’t the characters?) to the alien’s plan suddenly changing from one that makes sense to one that makes no sense at all (earlier on the suggestion is that the aliens’ world is dying so they need ours, or at least its energy, to feed off, and it’s explicitly stated that when the alien came it ‘discovered’ it could only speak to children; now it seems it was after children all along? And only a few dozen, not the whole planet’s-worth?), to the science moving from ‘fantasy’ to ‘just plain wrong and stupidly so’ (if the alien had been able to send the message using its Magic Rock then fine, but the method it ends up using is quite specifically travelling at light-speed, yet its compatriots show up the very next day — where were they hanging out, around Jupiter?) And to cap it all off the ostensible moral, about the alien winning because it is more willing to sacrifice than the humans, is broken because it sacrifice is for stupid plot contrivance reasons that don’t make sense, rather than, say, because the humans had figured out a way to make it talk so it killed itself to stop them figuring out how to defeat the invasion.

    My main complaint with the ending, though, is that it shows the whole thing to be an example of what I have decided to call a ‘spectator story’, ie, one where there was an interesting story going on but that it wasn’t the one the audience were watching: the audience were watching someone who was themselves watching the interesting story, and the interesting story would have unfolded precisely the same whether the story the audience was actually watching was there or not. So in this one, the alien has a plan, the alien executes its plan, the human characters watch the plan unfold, one step behind all the way, and in the end the plan comes off just as it would have (with one minor difference) if nobody had every discovered it.

    These stories tend to be either boring or, if they are not boring while they’re going on, frustrating as the audience realises they were watching a pointless story all along; a film example is Sicario, where Emily Blunt’s character turns out to be entirely and explicitly superfluous to the story.

    So that brings us to The Handmaid’s Tale, ‘The One Which Is All Flashback’. In one sense this is a bit pointless as it fails to move the story on, and also doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know or could have inferred about the past from the, much better and more concentrated, flashback that began the first episode. But on the other hand there isn’t really a story in the present at all, and this one at least has characters who have a goal! And who do things to try to achieve that goal! Which my goodness is a departure for this series. Maybe it bodes well for the (presumed) return to the present next time, though I’m not getting my hopes up.

    I activated my Amazon Prime free trial this week, so last night I watched the first episode of The Man in the High Castle. Now, it’s interesting and instructive to compare this with The Handmaid’s Tale. Both are stories about the USA under a dictatorship, and they are interested in showing the little details of life under the dictatorship, as well as exploring how the dictatorship came to be, so both have quite a lot of exposition, both small and large, to put over. But their ways of doing this are quite different. The Man in the High Castle immediately scores a billion points for not using flashbacks, obviously. But, also, note that it starts by giving us characters with goals: two of them have goals as soon as we meet them, Rufus Sewell whose goal is to hunt down the resistance and the guy who wants to drive the truck; and one, Alexa Davelos (the best thing about The Chronicles of Riddick), we meet in her everyday life but she quickly acquires a goal due to her sister. Even the minor characters in the sub-plot about the state visit have goals and conflicts.

    And the exposition is then delivered as a side-effect of the characters pursuing their goals. In dialogue, as characters talk about other things, they let slip hints of how things got this way. In the kinds of obstacles they face to their achieving their goals (the seemingly friendly and seemingly middle-class lady who steals Davelos’s money, showing the low-trust society under occupation). In the little details of life that they encounter as they try to achieve their goals. But never an explicit ‘look this is what things are like’ moment with no other purpose.

    Contrast this with The Handmaid’s Tale (after we’ve docked it a billion points right off the bat for using flashbacks) where the first episode suggests a lot of goals for the main character (Peggy’s friend turns out to by in the resistance and suggests there’s a spy in M’s household; is Peggy’s goal going to be to find out who they spy is? Then she disappears; is Peggy’s goal going to be to find out what happens to her? Is it to be to make contact with the resistance?) — only to then completely forget about them. Peggy remains an entirely passive character. Eventually it is the resistance who make contact with her, not the other way around; and her actions for the resistance consist of, well, of going along with M’s wishes, passively. She has no agency and she is, frankly, boring to watch. And the same applies to all the other characters: Yvonne Strahovski, for example, is wonderful at conveying the pain of a woman forced to watch her husband having sex with another woman, and the point where her relief at the idea that Peggy is finally pregnant turning to rage when she realises her ordeal will continue is frankly the high point of the series so far, but still, as a character, she has no goals beyond simply enduring.

    And the exposition is much more heavy-handed than in The Man in the High Castle: the Wall, for example, which the characters simply stop and discuss with no reason other than to get exposition over to the audience. Or the various scene of torture both in the present and in flashbacks, which have no purpose other than to be torture porn for feminists, and in which the torturers seem oddly as passive as the victims, just going through the motions; while in The Man in the High Castle the torture scene comes directly from Rufus Swell’s character’s active goals.

    Note I am by no means saying that The Main in the High Castle is a great work of television. But it at least understands and uses its medium, in a way that The Handmaid’s Tale doesn’t. The Handmaid’s Tale uses a discourse that is far more suited to a novel than to a dramatic medium (it was, I gather, originally presented as Peggy’s character’s diary? In which case the passive-observation style of it is not only not a flaw but a positive advantage); which is understandable given its origin, but then raises the question, why adapt something to a medium that it is fundamentally and inevitably unsuited for?

    Twin Peaks there’s less to say about: it continues. It continues at a very, very slow pace. And a very uneven pace. And some of the slow-paced sections are wonderful (Andy and Lucy are just as much of a highlight as they were in the original) and some are just tedious (the excessively pretty FBI agent getting as bored as the audience while watching Gordon bum a cigarette from the unexpectedly foul-mouthed Dianne — I wonder what it’s like rewatching the ‘damn fine cup of coffee! scenes with this in mind?). But yes, there’s the sense now that things have a telos. I just hope it’s not the full ten more episodes before bad Cooper actually confronts Douggie.

    And finally I watched a couple more episodes of Beauty and the Baker; my assessment hasn’t changed and I only bring it up because last time I forgot to mention Crazy Falafel-shop Guy and he definitely deserves it.

    • Re: Whispers – I think it’s more annoying weekly

      Re: Handmaid’s Tale. It didn’t feel passive to me and the flashbacks felt valid. From what I’ve seen, most viewers who complain about passivity are male, but it’s a bit like asking why women in Saudi Arabia don’t just overthrow all the men and if they don’t, why bother telling a story about a Saudi Arabian woman? This explains it better than I could though:

      https://www.thefword.org.uk/2017/07/the-handmaids-tale-tv-series-review/

      • JustStark

        and

        I think it’s more annoying weekly

        I can see that.

        but it’s a bit like asking why women in Saudi Arabia don’t just
        overthrow all the men and if they don’t, why bother telling a story
        about a Saudi Arabian woman?

        I don’t think that’s so — Okay, I can’t think of any specifically about Saudi Arabia, but Persepolis and Under the Shadow are both set in Iran and manage to be about female characters who are neither passive, nor who set out to overthrow the system. Overthrowing the system is not the only goal a character can have. Given those films can manage it, why can’t The Handmaid’s Tale?

        (Someone might wonder about the fact that both of those were made by people with actual experience of the situations described, which is why they are better than one made by a bunch of Western feminists trying to imagine what it might be like? But that someone would have to be more knowledgeable than me.)

        Also, it’s not just the female characters in The Handmaid’s Tale who are passive and goal-less: M is utterly passive too. Possibly he has goals in his working life, but the audience doesn’t see them: we just see him mooching about the house. the nearest he comes to having a goal is the suggestion that he would like to have an actual emotional affair with Peggy, which could be interesting if he actually did anything about it, but the nearest he gets is changing the way he looks at her once.

        Even the baddies, like the auntie, don’t seem to be doing what they do for any reason. From just the first episode of The Man in the High Castle, it’s obvious that Rufus Sewell really wants to hunt down the resistance. It drives him. What drives the auntie? If it’s anything, I don’t think we get any impressions of it. She dispenses punishments and tortures more seemingly just because it is her job than anything else.