Series review: Vikings (season 1)


In the US: The History Channel. New season begins at the end of February
In the UK: Lovefilm. New series begins at the end of February

The Vikings are a very under-appreciated bunch. Without them England, Ireland and indeed much of northern Europe would be very different places. Even at a very trivial level, the English language would probably be considerably harder and more like German, and might not have got such a purchase on world culture.

Although their importance as been glossed over and largely ignored, despite the debt we owe them, more and more they’re being acknowledged: I’d recommend going to the British Museum’s forthcoming Vikings exhibition, which will include a 37m long Viking longboat, for starters.

Also helping is the US’s History Channel, which broke the habit of a lifetime to produce its first scripted TV series last year. Now, I was on holiday when this first aired, so it completely passed me by. Fortunately, I’ve now got Lovefilm access, and was able to catch up with the show, having an idle moment or two to fill.

And I’ve very glad I did, because it’s actually a really interesting piece of work. A Canadian-Irish co-production written by historical drama go-to guy Michael “Tudors” Hirst, it’s part-educational, part-drama, telling the story of the semi-legendary, semi-historic Ragnarr Loðbrók (aka Ragnar Hairy Breeches), the man who pointed the Vikings in the direction of England (maybe) and whose sons launched the Great Heathen Army that was eventually to settle and rule most of the north and east of the country. It’s gripping, fun, thrilling, bloody, defies expectations and gives you a lot of insight into Viking culture and religion.


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The BarrometerA Barrometer rating of 3

Fourth-episode verdict: Almost Human (Fox)

In the US: Mondays, 8/7c, Fox
In the UK: Not yet acquired
Find it in the schedules where you live

With so many shows now starting with double-episodes, it seems to make more sense – if I can bear it – to wait for four episodes before passing verdict on them. Almost Human is a case in point. A big brave bold JJ Abrams TV show from Fox, it’s a futuristic buddy-buddy cop story between a growly white cop (Karl Urban) and a sensitive black android cop (Michael Ealy). They solve crimes together. They rib each other.

Every episode is more or less the same: there’s a shiny, quite interesting science-fiction idea about law enforcement or crime in the future. Our two heroes go around and solve the crime in precisely the same way two modern day cops would, just a bit quicker thanks to technology and special effects. The android gets shot or beaten up a bit, but he can take it because he’s an android. And then there’s much laughter at the end.

Along the way, despite 100 years having passed since women’s liberation, the entire existence of women except as sexbots, strippers, wives and mothers is pretty much forgotten – you might spot one in ten characters as being female. There’s a lot of male bonding and jokes. Mackenzie Crook from The Office gets to be nerdy. All the promise of story arcs and characterisation that was in the first episode gets more or less forgotten.

It’s incredibly, incredibly adequate.

I do appreciate that the show is trying to be a procedural, a CSI with robots, and that expecting individual episodes to be anything more than exactly the same as each other is a bad idea. There’s a decent enough chemistry between the two leads and they do their jobs as required. And it does come up with some intriguing ideas (this week, we got a liquid you can swallow that will make you a GPS beacon and a drug made from bacteria found on the ocean floor).

But unless you’re a teenage boy or will watch pretty much anything science-fiction related, this probably ain’t the show for you. It’s just too bland, too boys club and too empty in the human relationships department to really make you want to watch.

Barrometer rating: 3
Rob’s prediction: Will probably last a season, maybe get a second. But that’s it, unless there’s a big reboot


Review: Almost Human 1×1-1×2 (Fox)

Almost Human

In the US: Mondays, 8/7c, Fox
In the UK: Not yet acquired
Find it in the schedules where you live

Visions of the future almost by definition have to fit into two camps: things are either going to have to go better or they’re going to have get worse. Whether it’s Robocop, Blade Runner, Minority Report, Logan’s Run, Planet of the Apes or any other piece of sci-fi, authors tend to veer towards either the utopian or the dystopian in their projections.

So to a certain extent you have to give Almost Human a good deal of credit for envisioning a future that is both worse and better. It’s 2048 and science and technology have advanced considerably. Unfortunately, gangs of criminals have access to that technology and the crime rate is increasing at 400%. So the police decide to pair every human detective with a police/combat android, capable of incredible acts of strength and analysis.

Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban from Dredd 3D, Star Trek, The Bourne Supremacy, Xena: Warrior Princess, et al) loses his leg in a police operation that goes badly wrong. When he comes back to duty over a year later, the android he’s paired with annoys him so much he destroys it. So the lab guy (Mackenzie Crook from The Office) gives him one of the older models (Michael Ealy from Common Law, The Good Wife, FlashForward and Sleeper Cell): the ‘crazy ones’ with ‘synthetic souls’, capable of not just emulating but feeling human emotions, in addition to having natural robotic talents. Together, Kennex and ‘Dorian’ have to stop crime and learn to get on with one another, although is that even possible with an android?

And as you might expect from such a rundown, a good deal of imagination has gone into the science-fiction side of things, particularly as it relates to law enforcement, giving us everything from genetically targeted diseases to DNA bombs and robots capable of doing forensic analysis inside their bodies. The show also mines the obvious parallels with racial discrimination that having an underclass/slave population such a set-up gives us.

But as far as the human side of things goes, that’s where the imagination ran out. Here’s a trailer:

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Preview: Ground Floor 1×1 (TBS)

In the US: Thursday, 10/9c, TBS

Class-divide comedy isn’t the usual subject of American sitcoms. Indeed, you can probably count the number of properly working class sitcoms on US TV on just two hands, before you even get to class-divide comedy.

So on the one hand, we should be looking at the otherwise unchallenging TBS and marvelling as they prepare to premiere Ground Floor, a sitcom in which a blue collar worker on the ground floor on one business falls for a member of the high-flying elite on the top floor – and vice versa – and the two of them have to deal with all the class differences, expectations, co-worker challenges, et al that brings.

TBS has even got a top-flight team in for the job: Skylar Astin from Pitch Perfect is the somewhat How I Met Your Mother-reminiscent guy in the romantic pairing, Briga Heelan who excelled in the latest series of Cougar Town is the girl, John C McGinley (Dr Cox from Scrubs) is the boss, and it’s written by Bill Lawrence (Scrubs) and Greg Malins from Friends.

Unfortunately, despite its cutting-edge potential and top-tier cast and writers, Ground Floor is just about as conventional as you can get and not terribly funny to boot. Plus, if that’s what they think maintenance departments are like, they’ve all really been on the top floor too long.

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Mini-review: Dracula 1×1 (NBC/Sky Living)

In the US: Fridays, 10/9c, NBC
In the UK: Thursdays, Sky Living. Starts October 31st

There are many TV reviewers whose style it’s possible to want to emulate. Sam Wollaston of The Guardian is generally not one of those, largely because his reviews can be summarised as “I didn’t understand that and I had to ask my girlfriend what it was all about.”

But for once, I’m going to have to follow in his less than illustrious footsteps by saying “What? What did I just watch?” Dracula follows on from Hannibal by being an NBC/Sky Living co-production in which a European cast appear in a colourful horror story. Here, the story is a take on Bram Stoker’s Victorian classic Dracula, in which lawyer Jonathan Harker comes across a certain Count Dracula, who has a thing for his wife Mina,  discovers that Dracula is a vampire, and then with the help of one Abraham Van Helsing, kills the blood-sucker.

I say ‘a take’ because despite the Victorian setting, as far as I can work out, the plot of this Dracula sees journalist Jonathan Harker and girlfriend Mina Murray come across an American industralist (Jonathan Rhys Meyers from The Tudors), who is actually the vampire Dracula with a dodgy US accent. Dracula has been resurrected by Abraham Van Helsing to help fight the shadowy organisation of English people (including Robert Bathhurst), the Order of the Dragon, who want to run the world using the money from their petroleum and who killed Dracula’s wife, who bares an uncanny resemblance to Mina. Dracula has a nifty wireless electricity invention based on geomagnetism that will stop that ambition, he reckons.

And while that covers the bare bones of the plot, I have literally no idea what else is really happening. There’s another couple (Ben Miles from Coupling and Victoria Smurfit) who might be vampire hunters and who carry around heads in bags. They also faked the whole Jack the Ripper thing to cover up vampire activity, and Smurfit spends days doing martial arts training next to a vampire in a steel cage. Katie McGrath from Merlin – half the cast are Irish doing bad English accents, by the way – is a posh girl whose motivation for anything is equally unclear.

It’s all set in Victorian times, but there’s wireless electricity and I’ve no idea how the Middle Ages Transylvanian warlord Vlad the Impaler would know how to create it. Almost all the women wear clothes that would have shocked decent society back then. There’s flashbacks to shagging and I’ve no idea why Mina is the apparent reincarnation of Dracula’s wife. And why does journalist Jonathan Harker (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) just sit there writing ‘visionary’ and ‘egotistical’ on his unlined notepad when he’s supposed to be interviewing someone?

Together with Da Vinci’s Demons and Atlantis, it’s as if TV has now decided to start throwing aside any sense of plot coherence or historical authenticity in favour of just throwing things at our screens and hoping that something, anything will be cool and work. 

It all looks quite pretty thanks to being filmed in Hungary and there are some good fight scenes and vampire special effects. But between the bad accents, absolute incoherence of the plot, poorly defined or bizarre motivations for everyone involved, this is largely a show aimed at people who like wizzy gothic things happening at night with a hint of sex and blood, irrespective of whether it makes any sense.