What have you been watching? Including Squid Game, Cobra Kai, Hawkeye, The Mezzotint and The Book of Boba Fett

Temuera Morrison and Ming-Na Wen in The Book of Boba Fett

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

Hello, everyone, and welcome to 2022 – 2021 again but done right, we can all hope. How was your Christmas break? Hope you managed to get one and didn’t get the dreaded lurgy (or one of the other minor lurgies that were doing the rounds).

You’ll be glad to hear – since you’re here – that TMINE actually had the chance to watch some new TV shows over Christmas. Some of them were even good.

There was only one regular still on the TMINE viewing list: Hawkeye (Disney+). The final episode of that was fun, but somewhat lightweight. Its highlight was a tear-jerking confrontation between (spoiler alert) Yelena Belova (Black Widow’s grieving sister) and Hawkeye. However, the script didn’t exactly let both barrels blast on that, and it didn’t feel like we were getting Jeremy Renner, the Oscar-nominated actor, so much as Jeremy Renner, the bit-part player from an episode of Angel, so the emotion largely came from (spoiler alert) Florence Pugh and all the good work that other entries in the MCU had already done.

What also should have been a highlight of the episode – the return of (spoiler alert) Vincent D’Onofrio reprising his Netflix Defenders role of Wilson Fisk – largely got ruined through poor characterisation, right down to that atrocious shirt. I’m wondering if he’s a parallel universe version, rather than the one we’ve seen elsewhere. But maybe it’s down to a problem that’s intrinsic to both comic book crossovers and the MCU that stems from one of their supposed strengths: the ability to have different tones and genres in different shows and movies. If you stick something from a grittier genre into something more comedic and family oriented, something’s got to change, and more often than not, it’s the grittier thing. That can work, but here, it largely undid more or less all the good work that Daredevil et al in terms of characterisation and plausibility – despite some excellent acting from the star in question.

Overall, though, while not ultimately as good on average as WandaVision, it had almost as many highs, was more consistent and more fun, and was still a lovely Christmas treat for us all to unwrap. Plus it did give us this brilliant double-act.

After the jump, though, let’s talk about those new shows. Squid Game (Netflix) technically isn’t a new show, since it’s been around for a while – to the extent that we actually tried it a few weeks ago but gave up. However, we felt we should give it a second chance, given how popular it is, and we made it all the way through to the end.

Properly new were BBC Four’s latest Ghost Story for Christmas, The Mezzotint, and Disney+’s latest entry in the Star Wars firmament, The Book of Boba Fett. And although we’ve only got halfway through it, let’s talk a bit about season four of Cobra Kai (Netflix) as well. See you in a mo!

Squid Game (Netflix)

Hundreds of cash-strapped contestants accept an invitation to compete in children’s games for a tempting prize, but the stakes are deadly.

Rob says: ‘Pretty, but also pretty vacant’

Squid Game turned out not to be exactly as I described it last time. For starters, the Squid Game itself is the final of several games that are played. But largely, I had this show’s number by about the midpoint of the first episode.

It’s tempting, as it’s South Korean, to think this is basically Hunger Games meets Parasite, since there’s an obvious potential reading about capitalism. But it’s really more Hunger Games meets Bumfights, TBH, since ultimately, it’s a show about a whole bunch of poor, often homeless people being made to fight one another for cash, by rich people. There is probably a reading that can be made about how we only find out who we truly are in adversity – morality may go out the window if there’s a chance of richness, or maybe you’ll find there are limits you won’t exceed and strengths you never had when the chips are down. But ultimately, the whole show comes down to being a glorified Hard Target.

The show does have charms and strengths, though. The hero (Lee Jung-jae) really does win you over as the story goes on. There’s some desperately sad moments, as well as moments of surprising kindness. There are surprises in terms of who lives and who dies. There are some amazing visuals, too.

But the first of the games is by far the most interesting, with others later descending to the level of ‘cut a shape out of a piece of sugar quickly’ (may be popular in Korea, I don’t know). There are some terrible sexual politics, with everyone trying to avoid teaming up with women as ‘women are worse at games than men’ (there’s a lot of that), as well as some really astonishingly bad acting from some of the supporting cast. The script can also only be read metaphorically, since it’s so massively implausible and full of holes it has to take place in some kind of alternative universe or dream state.

And ultimately, it has no real message. All of this happens for no especially good reason. It’s a sort of positive nihilism.

Worth watching, since you will see some really different and interesting things. But the drama itself never really transcends some handwaving around a high-concept pitch and storyboarding.

The Mezzotint (UK: BBC Four)

Edward Williams, gentleman and amateur golfer, lives an untroubled life as the curator of a small university museum. His speciality is the topography of the British Isles. So when an art dealer sends him details of an interesting engraving – a mezzotint – of an old country house, he’s intrigued.

When the picture arrives, however, it seems perfectly ordinary – until Williams notices a figure in the picture where there was none before. A cloaked figure, with a skull-like head and legs that are horribly thin. Soon, within the mezzotint, the figure seems to be on the move across the moonlit lawn towards the house with murderous intent.

Long-forgotten secrets rise to the surface as Williams and his friends summon all the rational forces at their command to confront the impossible.

Rob says: ‘The best of the modern Ghost Stories’

Long-term TMINE readers will be aware of how much I loved the 1970s Ghost Stories for Christmas, particularly The Signalman. While the revival of these by BBC Four was welcome news, I’ve not especially loved Mark Gatiss’s work, mainly because he makes them too comedic for my taste, compared to the work of Lawrence Clark, whose documentary style was perfect for those true scares.

The Mezzotint isn’t that different in being a little too comedic, particularly at the beginning. But overall, I found it properly creepy. Gatiss is very much getting the hang of ensuring that his moments are genuinely horrifying and outweigh the comedy, rather than steering too close to the balance in The League of Gentlemen (UK: BBC Two).

I’m not sure I especially loved the additions to the original story that Gatiss made to pad it out to length, but on the whole, the best of the new Ghost Stories and very much worth watching. Maybe with the lights on.

The Book of Boba Fett (Disney+)

On the sands of Tatooine, bounty hunter Boba Fett and mercenary Fennec Shand navigate the Galaxy’s underworld and fight for Jabba the Hutt’s old territory.

Rob says: ‘A good start’

First launched as a backdoor pilot in The Mandalorian (Disney+), this sees Temuera Morrisson playing the much-loved kidnapper of Han Solo from The Empire Strikes Back.

Here, he’s a lot less impressive than he was in The Mandalorian as he tries to take over from Jabba the Hut post-Return of the Jedi, working with Ming-Na Wen to convert Jabba’s crime empire from ‘one run on fear to one run on respect’. Fett goes from one-man army to ‘old man with stick’ remarkably quickly, in fact. You’d have thought they’d have wanted to open with ‘awesome’, but apparently not.

Written by Jon Favreau and directed by Robert Rodriguez, the first episode is nevertheless pretty decent as we see Morrisson and Wen work their way around town and learning how to deal with local politics on Tatooine.

The recreation of iconic Star Wars sets is first-rate and actually very impressive. The show isn’t too hard-core or heavy, but spends a lot of the first episode flashbacking to explain how Fett got out of the sand beast in Return of the Jedi. It’s all a bit unnecessary and the kind of thing die-hard fans care about but gets in the way of a good story – something maybe for episode four or five, but with a captive audience, why not, huh? It’s also plenty of fun, with a good use of Star Wars mythos to subvert expectations.

I enjoyed it! I’ll be back for more for sure.

Cobra Kai (season four) (Netflix)

Seasons one and two more or less mined The Karate Kid for all its plot potential. Season three then took on The Karate Kid 2 so it’s no surprise that season four is drawing on The Karate Kid 3 for its plot elements.

I never watched that. I’m guessing not many people did. Did you?

All the same, despite that hindrance, I’m quite enjoying this current season. While it doesn’t have the freshness of the first two seasons and in many ways it’s retreading them, it’s actually making a virtue of that: how do you avoid repeating history? How do you break the cycle and try something new?

We, of course, have a new villain – The Karate Kid 3‘s Thomas Ian Griffith – brought in to help Cobra Kai crush its enemies. As with previous seasons, the show takes the movies and more or less retells them, just adding 40 years of storytelling improvements and age to the cast. But it’s a formula that works. The karate is still dreadful, everyone’s very slow, the acting isn’t great. But the scriptwriting is very good.

Perhaps the highlight is actually the female storytelling, since here we have all manner of nuance around its portrayals of women, conflict and female conflict resolution. It’s not just men failing to resolve issues like grown-ups; it’s women, too. This also leads to much comedy, mainly thanks to Jonny, who gets all the best lines (“I had to learn useless things like feminism to try to recruit her”).

There’s perhaps too much time spent on some of the main younger characters, too little on some of the others. The 80s nostalgia is exhausting and even for someone like me who lived through them, so tied up in minutiae that I missed after the references – particularly to middle of the road American rock bands.

But this is show that’s a lot better than it should be, that’s constantly surprising, that shows a real love for the originals without being slavish to them, and for the most part, isn’t about karate, more about ageing, how to live your life and learning with time.

I really am hoping that (spoiler alert) Hilary Swank shows up soon, though.

Author

  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.