What have you been watching? Including Childhood’s End, Legends, Limitless, The Expanse and Supergirl

It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently that I haven’t already reviewed and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case I’ve missed them.

The usual “TMINE recommends” page features links to reviews of all the shows I’ve ever recommended, and there’s also the Reviews A-Z, for when you want to check more or less anything I’ve reviewed ever. And if you want to know when any of these shows are on in your area, there’s Locate TV – they’ll even email you a weekly schedule.

It’s the last round-up before TMINE takes its Christmas break, but as I was away for a couple of days at the start of the week and I’m about to head off to YA Christmas party, I’ve not yet caught up on The Bridge. Otherwise, though, I’m up to date with all the regulars, so after the jump, we can talk about the latest episodes of The Expanse, Legends, Limitless and Supergirl.

Elsewhere, I’ve reviewed the first episode of Syfy’s The Magicians but I’ve also been watching a new Syfy mini-series, although I’m only up to episode two (of three), so not too many spoilers if you’ve seen the rest, please. Although it’s based on a book I’ve already read, so they might not be spoilers, if you see what I mean.

Childhood’s End (US: Syfy)
This adaptation of the classic Arthur C Clarke novel sees aliens come to Earth promising to turn the world into a utopia, by helping humanity to end poverty, inequality, global warming, etc, etc. To make things easier, since they don’t think humans will like their true appearance, they pick on an American farmer (Mike Vogel) to be their official spokesperson, turning his life upside down. But various people, including one of the few remaining scientists Osy Ikhile and newspaper proprietor Colm Meaney, who dubs the aliens ‘the overlords’, think the arrivals have an ulterior motive. And maybe they do…

Although the narrative is compressed from the original decades-long story to something a bit shorter to allow the same cast and characters to appear throughout, the show is nevertheless pretty faithful to the original, mulling over what would happen to humanity if we ever did get a utopia, particularly from an extraterrestrial rather than religious source, and whether we’d even like it. The story also plays with the fear of the unknown and the different, religion, and the perils of science, which it constantly subverts, with the aliens seemingly benevolent at each twist of the story. Well aware that numerous similarly-themed, more conventional movies and TV shows have appeared since the original was written (such as V, Signs and Independence Day), the adaptation uses them to its advantage, even referencing them at points (“What do you think their weakness will be? In Signs, it was water…”). 

Filmed in Australia and written by Matthew Graham (Life on Mars, Doctor Who), it’s replete with Aussie and British actors including Ikhile, Julian McMahon (Charmed, Fantastic Four, Nip/Tuck), Daisy Betts (The PlayerThe Last ResortPersons Unknown), Don Hany (Serangoon Road), Charles Dance (everything), and various members of The Doctor Blake Mysteries cast. Knowing how everything winds up does ruin it a little for me, female roles do feel a bit 1950s and I’m finding the second episode a bit poorly paced at the moment, but it’s a jolly decent and even surprisingly funny effort by Syfy (which is now committed to its new ‘fewer, bigger, better‘ mantra) that harks back to the network’s halcyon days of projects such as The Lost Room. Matthew Graham for next Doctor Who showrunner?

Continue reading “What have you been watching? Including Childhood’s End, Legends, Limitless, The Expanse and Supergirl”

US TV

Review: The Magicians 1×1 (US: Syfy)


In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, Syfy. Starts January 25 2016
In the UK: Not yet acquired

From many points of view, most of them commercial, Harry Potter was a great franchise. It made it to seven books and eight movies for starters, which very few other franchises managed to achieve; it also managed to reach that end point without getting worse – in some ways it even got better – which is practically unique, unless you’re a dyed in the wool Fast and the Furious or Friday the 13th fan.

But it did finish, which is an obvious problem. It was also for kids and starred kids, who as well as appreciably getting older over time, precluded any possibility of sexy time except in the darkest, nastiest niches of Internet fan fiction. It was also about English people.

As such, The Magicians is an obvious attempt to fix all those issues while sticking as close to the Harry Potter template as possible. Based on the series of novels by Lev Grossman, it sees the daftly named Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph), a fantasy-book reading college graduate, discover that magic isn’t just tricks involving coins – it’s real.

As there’s a university that offers a postgraduate course in magic, he enrolls at this ‘Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy’ to be trained as a magician and to maybe make sexy time with the witches. Unfortunately for Quentin, his childhood friend Julia (Stella Maeve from Golden Boy) flunks the entrance exam, so doesn’t make it to Brakebills. Instead, she gives up on her previous life, and instead goes searching for magic elsewhere.

Little does either Quentin or Julia know, however, that there’s an arch enemy no one will talk about at Brakebills who’s laid waste to a lot of the magic community, reducing the final year of pupils to a class of four. Is he related to the group that want to recruit Julia? Only time will tell…

Despite being an obvious Harry Potter knock-off with delusions of having subtext, The Magicians isn’t half that bad and bears more than a few similarities to Ursula Le Guin’s far superior to A Wizard of Earthsea that help to lift it. Unlike Potter, the story is at its worst at Brakebills, when it’s dealing with Quentin’s fellow pupils – they may all be graduate students but they still act like they’re in High School, and the show even gives us a 10 Things I Hate About You style introduction to all the campus’s various social groupsThey’re all completely insufferable and Quentin’s not that much better, being as full of himself ‘pre incident’ (you’ll know what I mean when I watch it) as Le Guin’s Ged was before that night on Roke Knoll. 

But when it’s dealing with both the real world and the darkest aspects of the magical world it’s conjuring, the show actually soars and the final few minutes of the first episode are genuinely disturbing and adult. It also clever enough to know its own heritage, with a ‘book within the book’ that’s clearly a Narnia knock-off, but like The Neverending Story, one that blurs into the ‘real world’ of the story.

If The Magicians can avoid its most Harry Potter-esque and its more ‘adult’ aspects in favour of its genuinely adult qualities, it could be a really good show. But I have a suspicion that it’s much more in love with its mean girls, cliques, nerds and sexy time party!! thoughts than with telling a seriously interesting story. 

US TV

Preview: The Expanse 1×1 (US: Syfy)


In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, Syfy
In the UK: Not yet acquired

As I’ve remarked before, nothing’s original these days – you’re basically just mixing elements of previous works together to come up with novel combinations. In sci-fi, that goes doubly so. Indeed, given any new sci-fi series, it’s usually possible to spend your time going, “Oh, that’s X meets Y,” where X and Y are the TV shows being synthesised together to create the new series. 

So you have to at least credit the creators of The Expanse with developing something that enables viewers to play this very nerdy drinking game not twice but thrice over, with the option of further plundering later on. Based on the books of ‘James SA Corey’ (really Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), it’s set in the 23rd century and postulates a future where the solar system has been colonised. The UN runs Earth, Mars is an independent military power and the asteroid belt is a source of raw materials that both Earth and Mars are looking at eagerly.

So Earth: think Elysium meets 24, with Shohreh Aghdashloo as the UN boss running black sites to try to find out what Mars is up to, as war in space looks inevitable.

The Asteroid Belt: Think Total Recall meets Babylon 5 meets Blade Runner meets Dune. Thomas Jane (The PunisherHung) is a ‘belter’ private detective investigating the disappearance of a rich girl who’s run away from home. The belters have grown up in low g, so often have things wrong with them, such as weak muscles, overly long limbs and problems with bone fusion. They also have their own language, which Jane speaks but his non-belter partner doesn’t. They’re also feeling a bit grumpy, since they’re the working class who make everything happen, doing dangerous work for low pay, while everyone gets rich on their labour.

Mars: We’ve haven’t seen that yet. Take two shots when we do.

Outer space: Think Alien meets Virtuality, with a proletariat crew grumping around the solar system with their cargo. Steven Strait (Magic City) is the unambitious second officer who gets a promotion to XO when the captain, Jonathan Banks (Breaking Bad, Community), gets a touch of the space blues. Then they get a distress call and thinks start to get a bit more dangerous.

What links the otherwise totally unconnected outer space and asteroid belt strands is that the distress call is from the missing rich girl. What’s going on, what will happen next and will everyone get to meet up by the end of the 10 episodes to become Elysium meets 24 meets Total Recall meets Babylon 5 meets Blade Runner meets Dune meets Alien meets Virtuality? You’ll just have to wait and see.

So far, so derivative. But, as I said, so’s everything these days. So does The Expanse do much that’s interesting with this pot pourri of sci-fi stories past, or is it just a rip off?

At the very least, The Expanse does indicate that following a somewhat fallow period for Syfy, in which it was more content to make B-movies like Sharknado and “me, too!” shows like Alphas and Z Nation, it seems relatively determined to make proper science fiction that leads rather than follows. Like Defiance, it loves itself a bit of world-building and tries to imagine what these 23rd century societies might be like. Life in the belt is well realised and no one has a modern-day fashionable haircut; bravely, even Jane has deformities from having grown up without the benefit of billions of tons of rock beneath him.

The Expanse also wants to emphasis that it is more Battlestar Galactica than Star Trek, with some attempts at correct physics which it credits its audience with having the brains to understand. For example, the solar system is very big and you need to go very fast to go any distance; that means accelerating quickly, which isn’t something the human body is very happy about and might need some assistance dealing with the associated difficulties. None of this is explained to some newbie – you just have to work it out for yourself.

But as is also often pointed out, science-fiction rarely tries to predict the future so much as extrapolate the present or even the past, and where The Expanse does fall down quite severely is in its depiction of cultures. Everything is basically the Wild West in outer space. There’s some racial diversity, but not much. Everyone appears to be straight.

And everything is run by white men (yes, captain, XO and 2nd officer of the spaceship are all white and men). Women, despite the fact that we’re talking about zero-g mining so physical strength isn’t an issue, aren’t numbered in the miners at all. And by the end of the first episode, there are only two female members of the cast left alive in outer space. One’s an engineer on the spaceship who has an oddly, cleavage-revealing outfit. The other is…

No. Have a guess what she does for a living, first.

Bet you can.

Yes, she’s a prostitute. 

As you may have noticed, the show’s Achilles’ Heel is the people side of things. As well as devising a future that’s less progressive than the 1950s, it’s also quite poor at creating characters you might care about. Jane’s almost interesting, but his is more or less the only person in the show who has any depth. Attempts to make Strait a slacker don’t endear him to you so much as irritate you. And they’re the ones who get the bulk of the characterisation. Pity everyone else who doesn’t even get that much.

The Expanse is very much science-fiction aimed at the ‘Sad Puppies’ contingent – big ideas, science-based, very little about the people, with heroic white guys running the place, the centre of all attention. If that’s your bag, The Expanse is one of the best offerings in this field for some time. If it’s not, then while you can admire it, like all that ice they’re mining in the asteroid belt, it’s a slippery affair that’ll you find hard to grab onto.

But don’t just take my word for it – try the trailer and if you like it, underneath is the entire first episode for you on YouTube.

US TV

Review: Telenovela 1×1-1×2 (US: NBC)


In the US: Mondays, 8.30c/7.30c, NBC. Begins January 4
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Don’t know what a telenovela is? Well, I’ve already written quite a bit about them, so why not head off to my review of a much better show, Jane The Virgin, to find out what they’re all about. Then come back here.

All clued up? Cool.

Right, now you know what a telenovela is, you might be annoyed at having done all that cramming to learn that despite the name, Telenovela is not really a telenovela. Jane The Virgin is. Jane The Virgin understands telenovelas. Telenovela doesn’t.

Or at least it doesn’t want to be a telenovela. It wants to cash in on the name. It wants to ‘homage’ telenovelas. It wants to have evil twins, passionate romances between ex-lovers and rivalries between jealous women. But it wants all those things as sidelines to an otherwise very conventional TV sitcom.

And by TV sitcom, I mean a sitcom set behind the scenes of a TV show. Eva Longoria (Desperate Housewives) plays Ana Sofia Calderon, the star of fake telenovela Las Leyes de Pasión. In a bid to boost the ratings, network executive Zachary Levi (Chuck, Thor 2Heroes Reborn) hires her ex-husband Jencarlos Canela (Más Sabe el Diablo, Pasión prohibida, Mi corazón insiste en Lola Volcán) in the hope that sparks will fly – or that the paparazzi will, at least.

And for the first episode at least, when it’s actually working that plotline, Telenovela isn’t half bad, is semi-appealing and clever, and is even funny at times. Eva Longoria may have spent the past few years behind the camera producing shows rather than starring in them, but she’s not forgotten what it takes to be a real screen presence – she makes everything look effortless while working the funny for all it’s worth, happy even to Sandra Bullock up and fall down a lot if the plot requires it. Canela is a good foil for her and the supporting cast, which includes Amaury Nolasco (Prison Break, Work It, Chase), isn’t exactly going for subtle (how could they be?), but services the needs of the script well.

The trouble is that what makes a telenovela a telenovela is a fixed story: a beginning, a middle and an end, with a plot that takes everything from A to Z driving each episode, usually through insanely mental territory. And Telenovela doesn’t want that. So as soon as we clear the first episode, we’re immediately in standalone territory. Yes, there’s an evil twin to deal with, but it’s a b-plot that affects only that episode and the almost touching rekindled romance between Longoria and Canela from the first episode is thrown aside in favour of a dafter plot about his having a stuntwoman rather than a stuntman for his scenes.

In fact, it’s readily apparent that the show has no real foundation, no real idea what it wants to be doing with its life, rather than to say ‘telenovela’ a lot and hope that people will watch it as a result. Liked all that joking in the first episode about Longoria not speaking Spanish fluently, while everyone else, even Levi, can? It’s gone. Romance? Gone. Politicking behind the scenes? Gone. Jokes? Gone. Pratfalls? Gone. Collapsing dresses? Gone… but not like that.

That’s traditional US TV, not telenovela territory. 

So it’s a distinct thumbs down from me. Longoria and pretty much everyone in the cast can do a lot better than this. And so can you – watch Jane The Virgin. That’s on Mondays, too. This is just the evil twin.

US TV

Mid-week mini-reviews: South of Hell (US: WE tv) and Superstore (US: NBC)

What’s this? ‘Mid-week mini-reviews’? Is this something new? Could this be Rob, having a new idea, some genuine innovation for a change?

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHA. 

HA.

Not really. It’s basically a couple of short reviews of programmes I watched this week that normally I’d save to Friday, because they’re not worth full reviews, but decided not to this week. 

South of Hell (US: WE tv)
Benjitek did herald this as being “about as bad as TV can get” and he wasn’t wrong. Mena Suvari (American Beauty, American Pie) plays an exorcist-for-hire who wanders round the US South expelling demons. The trouble is that a demon lives inside her, feeding on the evil Suvari exorcises from others and threatening to take her over.

Now I’m not a big fan of Eli Roth (Cabin FeverHostel). In fact, I’m not a fan of Eli Roth at all, but he has something of a rep in the horror genre and was given the honour of exec-producing Netflix’s second original TV series, Hemlock Grove, as a result. Clearly, he knows a thing or two about horror.

Which almost makes me think that maybe South of Hell is some cunning piece of satire that eluded me, because it’s astonishingly bad and ineptly made, with no hint that Roth was doing anything but reading a magazine while sitting 1,000 miles away behind some drone controls, directing on auto-pilot. In fact, it’s so laughable – I was literally laughing in places – with kids with badly glowing eyes to indicate possession, there were times I thought the show had to be deliberately bad and almost comic in the vein of Supernatural.

Except it’s clearly not. It’s just bad, virtually unwatchable, with no redeeming features. Cliched plot, abyssmal acting, cheap effects. Pity the poor, wretched souls forced to work on it.

Superstore

Superstore (US: NBC)
So on the one hand, well done to NBC not only for continuing to try to be diverse in its casting and plotting, but also for harking back to the days of Roseanne by giving us a blue-collar comedy with touches of workplace classics such as Parks and Recreation and The Office (US). On the other hand, it would help with a situation comedy if the comedy actually came from the situation or indeed the writers really ever indicated they’d worked in a supermarket before. The Office (US)? Think Outsourced instead. Just less racist. 

The basic set-up is that America Ferrera (Ugly Betty) is a supervisor in a hypermarket and Ben Feldman (A to Z) is the new employee with airs and graces who finds her attractive but makes an immediate bad impression on her, which leaves her with little patience for him. The result is that he keeps making costly mistakes, such as marking everything as costing $0.25 rather than 25% less, resulting in Black Friday levels of customer in-fighting. An obvious training issue that needs to be addressed? Something that needs HR’s involvement? A simple tannoy announcement that legally, the store doesn’t have to sell anything at the marked price if it doesn’t want to, so stop clubbing each other with the electrical goods or you’ll have to pay full price?

Nope. Just hilarious consequences.

The show’s saving grace is that while there are other employees and plenty of customers who are white trash idiots, Ferrera isn’t an idiot and Feldman’s not truly a dick, just a little unfortunate, so the show usually feels like it’s laughing with its characters, rather than at them. It’s even sometimes sympathetic towards them.

All the same, without jokes, a comedy show is for naught, and while frequently it’s smart and comes perilously close to being funny and sometimes even witty, nothing ever really lands home, bar a joke about a cubic zirconium knock-off. Still, it’s better than South of Hell. And Sky’s Trollied, for that matter.