What have you been watching? Including The Plot Against America

It’s “What have you been watching?”, your chance to recommend to fellow TMINE readers anything you’ve been watching this week

Previously on TMINE

So, erm, yes. There’s this virus thing and we’re all being quarantined. How about that for fun? Still, rather than giving me more TV viewing time, it just gave me more work, which meant that things have been a bit quieter than planned on TMINE this past week.

In fact, there have been no TV reviews this week at all. I have been watching season 3 of Babylon Berlin but I’m only up to episode 8 of 12, so I’ll hold off reviewing that until next week. Although, to be honest, I’m not sure I can muster a whole Boxset Monday review for it, so that’ll probably sneak in with WHYBW next Wednesday.

Orange Thursday did manage to take in both Radioactive (2020) and Joker (2019). But given that that naughty virus, which has already cancelled all the scheduled BFI and BAFTA events, has now closed down all the cinemas, that’ll be the last for reviews and previews of current movies for a while.

Little Fires Everywhere

Next on TMINE

Although pretty much every TV show you can name, UK or overseas, has now shut down production, we do at least have a few new shows that have already been completed coming our way, some of which I hope to watch. What else am I going to do? Go out?

After the jump, though, I’ll take in the latest bit of work from The Wire‘s Ed Burns and David Simon – an adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which sees what happens in a parallel universe America when Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR in the presidential election of 1940.

Coming later this week (hopefully) are reviews of Hulu (US)’s Little Fires Everywhere and Freeform (US)’s Motherland: Fort Salem, both of which start today. I’m less likely to watch Julian Fellowes’ dramatisation of the history of football, The English Game (Netflix), teen knight drama The Letter For the King (Netflix) or period fashion biopic Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (Netflix), but they’re on the table at least. I might be able to add Council of Dads (US: NBC) to next week’s WHYBW, as it’s airing on Tuesday, but we’ll wait and see on that.

Meanwhile, tomorrow’s Orange Thursday will head into the exciting world of TV movies. No, not TV Movies – TV movies. First up will be Netflix’s Spenser Confidential (2020), which is a very loose remake of 80s TV show Spenser For Hire (US: ABC) (or at least the original source material).

And then we’re going to head even further back in TV time to the 60s for The Man From UNCLE‘s The Helicopter Spies (1968). Spoiler for the second of those – there aren’t that many helicopters in it.

Devs © Miya Mizuno/FX

The regulars

Stumptown took another holiday again, which means I’ll only be reviewing the following regulars after the jump: Devs, For Life, Star Trek: Picard, Stateless, Transplant, and War of the Worlds. At least one of them’s getting a promotion to the recommended list – isn’t that exciting?

I did try to watch the second episode of Amazing Stories (Apple TV+), but “It’s A Wonderful Life with an aspiring urban female 400m runner” really put me off after about 15 minutes, so that’s not going to be a regular, just something I dip into occasionally, I suspect.

What TMINE watched this week

New shows

The Plot Against America

In the US: Mondays, 9pm, HBO
In the UK: Acquired by Sky Atlantic.

A working-class Jewish family in New Jersey watches the political rise of aviator-hero and xenophobic populist Charles Lindbergh, as he becomes president and turns the nation toward fascism. This six-part re-imagining of history is based on the Philip Roth novel of the same name.

TMINE verdict

The cliché about The Wire was that it was novelistic – just as there’s no point judging a book by its first chapter, so there was no point judging The Wire by even the first couple of episodes of each season.

The Plot Against America is even more immune to criticism than The Wire in this regard, since it is based on a novel. Certainly, the first episode is very much a Chapter One, seeing as even the show’s main parallel universe foundation – the election of Charles Lindbergh president in 1940 – doesn’t happen. Instead, it’s merely an introduction to our protagonists and examination of the climate in which said election was held.

The show does a very good job of evoking period detail, showing how borderline fascist and isolationist the US was at that time, and was casual anti-semitism was prevalent in the culture.

But the show fails in several regards. The first is characterisation. Despite having the likes of Winona Ryder and John Turturro in the cast, no one feels real, so much as the sort of people who crop up in GCSE History empathy essays in order to explain the effects of historical events on people at the time. Everything they do and say is to enable the Important Points to be made.

The exceptions here are the kids, with the show taking its time to paint much better portraits of its young characters.

The second reason is more a lack of uniqueness. Sure, the possible election of Lindbergh isn’t exactly something that gets tackled much in drama. But this is now the umpteenth Second World War parallel universe drama on the cards, following the likes of The Man in the High Castle and SS-GB.

Yep, we get that it could have gone the other way and we’re fortunate it didn’t. Yep, we get that fascism wasn’t just something that happened in continental Europe but which got broad support among the Allies, too – The Crown pointed that out in season two. Yep, we get there are important parallels with current politics.

And lastly, I’m just bored of Second World War dramas per se. Seriously, are there really no other times in either recent or remote history that mainstream channels want to deal with in drama? Apart from the Tudors? No lessons to be drawn from any other time period in any other country at all?

All the same, it’s Chapter 1. Of six. I’m perfectly prepared to dedicate the time needed to see what happens next – and not judge a book by its cover.

TMINE rating

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Shows I’m watching but not necessarily recommending

Devs

1×3 – Episode 3

An odd episode, given this is a mini-series, since it basically seems just to confirm everything we suspected was happening in the first two episodes: (spoiler alert) the CCTV footage was faked and the quantum computer is being used to look back in time or simulate history. Which makes me think more must be going on, given the events of the first episode. My money? (spoiler alert) It turns out the universe is a simulation and that quantum computer has discovered the code

That aside, some strong moments, including our heroine’s cunning fake out plan and the arrival of the US senate on the scene. Plus the characters are being allowed to have personalities at last. Except for Nick Offerman. Which is a shame.

TMINE rating

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Initial TMINE review

Star Trek: Picard (US: CBS All Access; UK: Amazon)

1×8 – Broken Pieces

Everything’s starting to come together now, as the show lays its cards on the table and explains what’s going on. We also had some exciting Borg moments. And my head is full of notes.

First, a friend of mine has pointed out it’s interesting to compare the difference between Patrick Stewart’s performance in the first episode and the latest episode. It’s clear he was playing frail and rubbish at the beginning and as Picard has been more and more in space and doing the hero thing, so Stewart’s performance has become stronger and more like the Picard of old.

Second, kudos to “hot Romulan sister” Peyton List (Frequency, The Tomorrow People) on being one of the few US actors or actresses who can do a decent English accent. I’d clocked her name in the credits, but it wasn’t until this week my brain finally went “Oh, it’s Peyton List off Frequency!”

Thirdly, the whole plot is very reminiscent of the second season of Star Trek: Discovery. Very. Can that be a coincidence, given Alex Kurtzman is overseeing both shows? Probably not. So are we effectively seeing the conclusion to that plot or even the end of the Federation as we know it? Or more likely – sigh – the setting up of season three of Discovery?

Lastly, Jeri Ryan really does liven everything up, doesn’t she?

TMINE rating

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Initial TMINE review

Stateless (Australia: ABC; UK: Netflix)

1×3 – The Right Thing

More events inside the refugee camp that show the difficulties the situation imposes on the people therein, on both sides of the divide. Which is basically what the second episode did, but it’s still doing it well. You can sort of see where it’s all going, but I wouldn’t place bets yet.

The return of Dominic West and Cate Blanchett with their exaggerated cult leaders wasn’t especially welcome, mind. And if you’re going to pretend to be a German woman with a strong accent called ‘Eva’, at least try to pronounce it like a German would.

TMINE rating

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Initial TMINE review

War of the Worlds (UK: Fox)

1×3 – Episode 3

More The Walking Dead with aliens as everyone hides from the nasty metal cyborg. Unto every War of the Worlds adaptation – including Independence Day – comes the moment when everyone has to deal with HG Wells’ virus ending (it’s was did for the Brits in the Empire) and to the show’s credit (spoiler alert) let’s build a biological weapon to tackle the fleshy part of the cyborg is a surprisingly nasty solution.

Other elements, such as the blind girl’s variable blindness, are less clear in their direction. Are we going for a “you can’t trust anyone” or a “let’s band together in adversity” approach with this?

Lastly, I am enjoying the show’s actual nastiness. That character’s loved one they’ve been searching for for two episodes? Dead. That one’s loved ones? Dead. It’s refreshingly French.

TMINE rating

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Initial TMINE review

Recommended shows

For Life (US: ABC)

1×5 – Witness

A well deserved promotion for a constantly different, morally ambiguous and even educational show. This week – our hero, who only takes on cases that will further his own, has to decide whether to continue helping his client when he discovers he actually did it. Which given he’s in prison and all his clients are prisoners is going to be highly likely in future episodes, too. What moral compromises is he willing make to get ahead?

Similarly, the show does a first-rate job of showing how good people trying to do the right thing – district attorneys, the police, our hero – can cut corners and do wrong in the process. You do actually feel for both sides here and you don’t always root for the hero and his willingness to sacrifice all in the pursuit of proving his own innocence.

Well worth watching.

TMINE rating

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Initial TMINE review

Transplant (Canada: CTV)

1×3 – Your Secrets Can Kill You

And another show gets a promotion, with Transplant proving to be a highly effective, highly engaging twist on the medical procedural. This week, will our hero fake the documents he needs to work in Canada as a doctor? He did earn them and he has copies, but Syria’s a touch on the broken/oppressive side so can’t get them.

Similarly, we got to see more on procedure and that what might work in Canada might not in Syria – and vice versa. Can you as a doctor really take an anti-vaxer to task for endangering his child’s life? Even if you’ve come from a country that almost literally fights to get access vaccines?

So while our hero was showing everyone how to deal with diphtheria – he’s seen it and treated it, while everyone else had thought it was a disease long passed in Canada – he was also having to learn what’s new and exciting in medicine that he doesn’t know about, having trained in a war zone and worked in a takeaway for five years.

There’s also the ambiguity of his home arrangements, the difficulties of being a refugee with other refugee friends (whom the government might want to talk to…) and John Hannah finally being allowed to let loose. A top show that deserves its promotion.

TMINE rating

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Initial TMINE review