In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, Syfy
In the UK: Not yet acquired
As you’ll see tomorrow when I review Showtime’s Black Monday, we are apparently entering a new phase of 80s nostalgia. We’ve already numerous 80s TV shows lapping up the nostalgia value of video games, sport, fashion, hairstyles, high schools, music, film, politics et al of the era (eg Dark, Stranger Things, Halt and Catch Fire, GLOW, The Americans, Deutschland 83). But while The Americans and Dark weren’t exactly a bundle of laughs, they were pretty pro the 80s or at least neutral. Which is odd, because the 80s didn’t exactly feel brilliant when we were living through them.
There’s a big wonderful decade out there for you to explore. The 80s was more than neon lights, a synth soundtrack, and basement D&D. “Just Say Yes” to the unsanitized 80s.
But does it really know how? Or even what the 80s was really like?
The In Crowd v The Nerds
It stars Benjamin Wadsworth as a homeless street criminal who really hates Reagan, mainly because the Gipper has shut down plenty of hospitals for the mentally ill, resulting in all manner of schizophrenics and the like killing themselves or dying.
I’m not sure why he’s hanging his hate hat on that particular hook so vehemently, but he is.
Then into his life come the pupils of King’s Dominion, a High School for kids run by Benedict Wong (Marco Polo, The Martian, Doctor Strange). King’s Dominion has one central feature of its teaching curriculum: it teaches poor kids to kill. Why? Because Wong’s peasant-descended family has tried to ensure the poor should never be in a position where the rich can run a tyranny over them.
Soon, Wadsworth is having to do a Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You: he’s learning who the in crowd and the out crowd are, what cliques to join and avoid, so he can become a pupil at King’s Dominion. But he has one big motivation to do it – he wants to assassinate Ronald Reagan.
When is a remake not a remake? You could argue that History’s Project Blue Book isn’t a direct remake of Project UFO for sure, given that both are supposedly based on something else – real-life reports from the USAF’s Project Blue Book investigations of unidentified flying objects. However, they’re really so similar, I can’t help but feel that Project Blue Bookshould be described as a remake, even if it’s nowhere near as frightening or as interesting.
Project UFO was a scary thing. At least, I thought so watching at the time and even watching the title sequence now gives me the heebie-jeebies.
They spend 90% of the episode proving that there was a perfectly rational explanation for everything
They go away
The final five minutes reveals it was aliens all along!
And Project Blue Book isn’t that different, even if the whole thing now has a big dollop of post-X-Files conspiracy theory bolted on top.
As it’s the History Channel and although that’s a title that increasingly should be said with air quotes round it, there is a germ of real history to Project Blue Book. It sees Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones, The Wire, Queer as Folk) playing real-life university astronomer J Allen Hynek. He’s recruited by the USAF to investigate the spate of sightings of unidentified flying objects that Americans around the country have been reporting. The USAF wants him to debunk them as it’s not very helpful to have mass hysteria during the Cold War. To help him – or maybe vice versa – he’s accompanied by Michael Malarkey (The Vampire Diaries), a (not real-life) air force captain who’s been investigating UFOs by himself for some time.
Both are sceptical from the outset and prove a formidable investigatory team. Malarkey is able to use his flying and air force experience to debunk some aspects of stories and get some people to talk, while Gillen’s scientific expertise enables him to sort the ridiculous from the plausible and get others to talk.
The first episode sees the two of them investigating a (supposedly) real Project Blue Book sighting, in which a pilot collided with a ‘green orb’ but which Malarkey and Gillen reckon could well be a weather balloon. But some things don’t quite add up…
The scientific investigation of UFOs is strangely enough the show’s strongest quality. It really is interesting to see the two of them use science and expertise to investigate stories and discover the truth, with both actors providing strong counterpoints to one another.
But, unfortunately, lingering behind the scenes is the shadow of The X-Files. Despite this being ‘the History Channel’, all of the very real Project Blue Book turns out to be a cover-up run by Neal McDonough (Arrow, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, The Burning Zone, Star Trek: First Contact, Captain America) to stop people finding out the truth about the real aliens, particularly those from Roswell. Gillen and Malarkey are just patsies being used to provide a veneer of plausibility to the project.
The USAF should probably sue for libel. Certainly, it’s what ruins Project Blue Book for me. The show was already playing fast and loose with history at this point: Hynek may eventually become a believer and even invent the ‘Close Encounters’ grading system in real-life, but for the first few years of the project, he was a committed sceptic, not the easy convert the first episode suggests.
Similarly, for a conspiracy, it ain’t half clumsy. McDonough might as well be shouting at Malarkey ‘There are real aliens so stop investigating too hard or you’ll find them’ for all the subtlety the writers allow him to show and there’s only so many times that a shadowy man in a hat can follow Gillen before you wonder why he doesn’t realise someone high up has it in for him.
Unlike Project UFO, there is an attempt to give the two investigators in Project Blue Book something of a life outside of investigating aliens. However, much of it feels like just extended efforts to keep the paranoia going through other plot lines.
Laura Mennell (Alphas, Haven, Loudermilk, The Man in the High Castle,Watchmen) has a thankless role as Gillen’s wife and so far most of her storyline has focused on going dress shopping with the potentially dangerous, potentially gay Ksenia Solo (Lost Girl), who might be trying to use her to find out more about her husband.
Otherwise, though, it’s 50% conspiracy nonsense, 50% moderately interesting adaptations of real Blue Book investigations. If we turn off a) and focus on b), the show will get a lot better, as it has a fine cast, good period detail and a decent budget for recreating ‘sightings’. Having been a bit of UFO buff as a kid, it was also thrilling to see all the famous photographs I had in my scary UFO book, too, so more of that, please.
If not, YouTube has pretty much all of Project UFO on it, so I might just give that a rewatch instead. ‘Ezekiel saw the wheel…’
With Marvel superhero shows now spread far and wide across the US programming spectrum, ABC, Fox, Netflix, Freeform and FX all carrying at least one show apiece, it was easy to predict that Marvel’s Runaways might be different to people’s expectations, as each service needs to distinguish itself from the others. The question was how.
Airing on streaming service Hulu, it has a relatively simple premise: a bunch of California school kids discover that their parents are supervillains who sacrifice young runaways in a weird sci-fi ritual; said kids then have to stop their parents’ nefarious without letting on that they know their secret. Luckily, the kids turn out to have all manner of powers: one’s an engineering genius who designs a special pair of weaponised gloves; another has a pet dinosaur that obeys her commands; a third seems to be a floaty light angel; a fourth has super strength; a fifth has a staff that gives her magic witch powers; and the sixth… is good with computers.
So far, so seemingly predictable. However, in the hands of Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (The OC, Gossip Girl), season one of this Hulu drama was a more surprising affair, designed to appeal to both kids and their parents. The show effectively played off the two generations against one another, both on-screen and within the audience.
The kids’ storylines showed off their black and white, developing morality, while love affairs aplenty, gay and straight, were soapy and simple, full of fierce, childish emotions and minor slights becoming major incidents.
Meanwhile, the parents in the audience could enjoy the more nuanced storyline of the adults. In a minor stroke of casting genius, many of the adults were played by stars of TV shows older viewers would have watched in the early 2000s, including James Marsters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Julian McMahon from Charmed, Annie Wersching from 24, and Kevin Wiseman from Alias. Here, relationships are complicated, true love does die, people marry for other reasons, and transgressions can be overlooked, while supervillainy may be caused by degenerative brain diseases, traumatic childhoods, blackmail, progressive compromises or simply a desire to protect your kids.
Runaways – season two
When we left our teenage rebels at the end of season one, they had finally defied their parents to run away after the stealthy cold war had become a hot war. What would become on them as they went out into the world on their own? Would they survive? What would their parents do? And what would they do to their parents?
Unfortunately, as we learned with both The OC and Gossip Girl before, Schwartz and Savage can do a great first season, but tend to lose their way in their second season – and Marvel’s Runaways is no different.