Sandrine Holt, Steve Zahn and Natalie Martinez in The Crossing
US TV

Third-episode verdict: The Crossing (US: ABC; UK: Amazon)

In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, ABC
In the UK: Tuesdays, Amazon

The Crossing started as a really quite basic allegory about modern day politics, in which a whole bunch of refugees are literally washed ashore in the US, only to reveal themselves as Americans travelling back in time to escape from a war they’re losing quite badly.

Come on, audience, feel some empathy for Syrians – there but for the grace of God go you.

For the most part, that was all it was, with small town sheriff Steve Zahn (Treme, Mind Games) and Department of Homeland Security agent Sandrine Holt (Hostages, House of Cards, MacgyverThe ReturnedThe Art of More) having to deal with the new Americans. Holt has to deal with the mystery of the refugees’ arrival, while Zahn has to deal with one particular refugee (APB‘s Natalie Martinez) who it turns out has superpowers – the war was actually between Homo Sapiens and a newly engineered master-race of Apex predators, of whom she is one.

Come on, white audience, feel some empathy for oppressed minorities – there but for the grace of God go you.

And it wasn’t very good. It was okay, but it wasn’t great sci-fi, Zahn was less than plausible as a sheriff and Holt just sat behind a desk answering phones for the most part. A hint that another bunch of time travellers had already come through a good deal earlier gave the ending a nice twist, but beyond Martinez and her super-leaping, that was about it.

A mild improvement

Since then, things have got a bit better, as we’ve moved away from the allegory into telling more of a story. Episode two gave us some glimpses at the Continuum-like future and revealed Martinez’s mission in the past. We also got a super-virus that the world needs to watch out for.

While Zahn and Holt have had the same duties as before, Martinez has had some really quite whizzy super-fights and it rapidly became clear that she was the one good thing about the show. We also got some nice greying of the waters, with the previous travellers turning out to be regular humans coming back in time to try to prevent their terrible future from occurring, but not being especially concerned about what they have to do to prevent it.

However, while episode three at least maintained Martinez’s fighty fun, Zahn spent most of his time with his kid at a funfair, while Holt spent it typing into a computer or calling other people to get them to type into a computer. I do wonder if she’s only been hired for a couple of days, so they had to film all her scenes back-to-back on the same set.

The Crossing: Conclusion

Like The Whispers before it, The Crossing is probably going to turn out to be one of those sci-fi shows that ABC periodically produces that has a semi-decent core and just enough promise and decent production values that you imagine it might not be too bad – but which ultimately is likely to disappoint and never lead anywhere really satisfying.

That’s how I ended my review of the first episode and I stand by it. The Crossing is all of that and if you’re after decent sci-fi with pretty much all the same themes as The Crossing, try Continuum instead since it’s a lot better.

That said, The Crossing‘s meat and two veg sci-fi will serve you just fine as one of your regular servings a week, even if it doesn’t really contain much that’s nourishing. I might just keep watching to see what Martinez gets up to and if the plot will advance at all and become about more than looking for lost children and endless capture/release cycles, but as that would be my only draw, I imagine that if anything else pops up in the schedules, The Crossing would fall out of my watch-list very quickly.

Barrometer rating: 4

The Barrometer for The Crossing

Killing Eve
US TV

Review: Killing Eve 1×1 (US: BBC America; UK: BBC One/BBC Three)

In the US: Sundays, 9pm, BBC America
In the UK: Acquired by BBC One/BBC Three. Will air in 2018

These days, it’s perhaps hard to remember that the James Bond books were aspirational pieces of writing. Sure, they were about an MI6 spy – well, assassin really, given his licence to kill – but as well as being a classic example of ‘competence porn‘, their endless lists of foods, designer labels and airports were also windows on a world of luxury and international travel that a post-war generation of readers still on rations could never hope to see for themselves. Small wonder that the movies with their glossy location filming became huge hits for the pre-EasyJet generations, who now know full well that airports are not in the slightest bit glamorous.

Outside the John Le Carré world of spy realism, pretty much every male spy TV and film series has been the same aspirational idea, just redressed for a new generation or slightly different audience: the Bourne movie series is basically Bond again, but for liberal Americans, for example.

Aspirational female spies – and assassins – have been a little harder to find. Sure, there have been attempts, such as the Moneypenny books and Black Widow in comics, but possibly the best attempt so far has been Modesty Blaise, although the movie didn’t really set the world on fire, despite numerous charms.

Sandra Oh in Killing Eve

Jane Bond

One could argue about what an aspirational female spy/assassin would be, but BBC America’s new series, Killing Eve, offers one really good suggestion. Adapted from Luke Jennings’s Villanelle novels by Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, it sees Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy) playing a bored MI5 desk officer who begins to suspect that a series of assassinations around the world are the work of a female assassin. Even though, it’s not her job, she defies orders and investigates, resulting in tragedy – and possibly a new job thanks to MI6’s Fiona Shaw.

Rather brilliantly, even though the books are about Russian orphan-turned-assassin Villanelle – played equally brilliantly here by Jodie Comer (Doctor Foster) – Oh is the clear protagonist of the piece. That means we aren’t asked to identify as much with Villanelle and her job and can instead aspire to her rather wonderful lifestyle. She lives in Paris, speaks multiple languages fluently, and has designer bed linen and clothes.

But rather than be a simple blunt, character-less tool of the state like James Bond, or a seductive femme fatale without any desires of her own, Comer’s Villanelle has fun. She’s also fun herself. When handler Kim Bodnia (Bron/Broen) shows up at her apartment, she’s faked her own suicide – but not too well, as she doesn’t want him to believe too much, since it’s just a joke.

She’s also no mere male spy with the pronouns changed or a male fantasy. She does things that no male spy tends to do: she plays with children, for example. Can you imagine Bond doing that? She’s also more gymnast than ninja or member of the military. She shins up drainpipes like she’s in the circus, and when she’s forced to hide in a room without exits, she literally folds up her diminutive stature inside a suitcase. She listens to cool music, wears cool clothes, zooms around on motorbikes and is a delight to behold, even when she’s stabbing someone in the eye.

Small wonder that Killing Eve is all about the mutual fascination that Oh and Comer end up having for one another, Comer and her fun life being something that Oh could aspire to having.

Kim Bodnia and Jodie Comer in Killing Eve
Kim Bodnia and Jodie Comer in Killing Eve

Spy humour

But Killing Eve is as much a comedy as it is a drama. Nevertheless, unlike most spy comedies, such as Austin Powers, ChuckSpy or In Like Flint, it’s not a spoof. Instead, this is a comedy of everyday life, of the office and of relationships. Oh and work colleague David Haig are annoyed to have to come into work on a Saturday – and are still hung over from Haig’s birthday party from the night before. Oh snacks her way through this important meeting and is worried that she’s not making the right impression with Shaw. Important conversations happen while buying milk at the corner shop, rather than over a shark tank.

I have to admit to really loving Killing Eve, with its mixture of spy glamour and spy mundanity. Despite being made by BBC America, there’s location filming all over Europe and it looks great. Oh’s a great lead and fits in with the British tone and humour. Comer, meanwhile, is a revelation – I don’t remember ever seeing her in anything, but here she dominates every scene when necessary, while disappearing into the background whenever the story demands it.

Even if you didn’t like Fleabag, there’s a good chance you’ll like or even love this. And it might even make you want to become a top female assassin.

Siren
US TV

Third-episode verdict: Siren (US: Freeform; UK: Syfy)

In the US: Thursdays, Freeform
In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, Syfy. Starts May 3

Starbucks' Siren logoSee that logo? That’s the logo of a moderately well-known, Seattle-based company called Starbucks. It’s also a siren. Apparently.

This is somewhat bewildering to me. The sirens in The Odyssey are scary creatures and the Greeks believed they were the companions of Persephone, the queen of the underworld. If you heard them sing, you’d be drawn towards them and probably end up dead at their feet without their caring one jot. But their sweet song in Hades might at least make your death seem more bearable.

As the marvellous Emily Wilson also recently pointed out, the sirens of The Odyssey aren’t described at all and aren’t actually sexy in the slightest; however, Greek vase art and funerary stelae show them to be half-women, half-birds. Starbucks’ idea of pretty topless mermaids singing sexy songs to lure sailors into their arms? Nope. That seems to be an invention of 19th century American sailors who’d been at sea away from women for too long.

So I’m somewhat pleased that while Freeform’s new show Siren certainly gives us a mermaid-like creature from the waters in the pacific northwest who can sing an entrancing song, the show is a far more complicated affair than a simple young adult version of The Little Mermaid.

Fola Evans-Akingbola, Alex Roe and Eline Powell in Freeform's Siren
Fola Evans-Akingbola, Alex Roe and Eline Powell in Freeform’s Siren

Handsome and the fish

Certainly, the plot synopsis would have you thinking of Siren as little more than a gender-swapped version of The CW’s Beauty and the Beast, which is probably what it would have been on that network. It sees Eline Powell (The Fear) playing a mermaid/siren who comes onto land to look for her sister mermaid (Sibongile Mlambo), who’s accidentally caught by a group of fishermen and is then in turn captured by the US military to be experimented upon. However, she soon comes across marine biologist Alex Roe (The Cut) who wants to both help and study her… and possibly something more, too.

Slightly problematically, though, he lives in “the mermaid capital of the world” – a town with a rich mermaid folklore, rather than a lot of mermaids – and one of his ancestors is famous for having fallen in love with a mermaid. Although he might in reality actually having killed a lot of them instead. Oops.

He’s also got a girlfriend already (Fola Evans-Akingbola). Oops.

Siren

Horrifying

However, while Freeform is as pitched at the young adult market as The CW is, it’s far more interested in the sort of young adults who like The Maze Runner rather than A Wrinkle in TimeSiren is actually best thought of as a horror TV show, rather than Splash 3.

The mermaids here are predators and Powell’s siren is super-strong and super-vicious, slicing and murdering her way around town as she looks for her missing sister. She’s also not one of those Daryl Hannah, pretty mermaids – thanks to some cunning make-up and contact lenses, she looks genuinely odd, and Powell makes her seem deeply uncomfortable with her surroundings. And when she’s a full-on mermaid, it’s clear that she’s more likely to have you for lunch than sing to you.

There’s also no instant learning of English and while Powell is starting to understand some of what people are saying to her by the third episode, it’s a very strangely accented English, delivered oddly. You do get a real sense of the alien from her. If Roe and Powell do end up in a relationship together, it’ll be as odd as if he’d started dating a velociraptor.

Siren cast

Brits at sea

All of which makes Siren a far more interesting take on things than that synopsis would have suggested. The trouble is the casting. While Powell’s fabulous, she’s the only Brit in the cast who is. And there are a lot of Brits – Roe and Evans-Akingbola are both Brits and they both have the usual problem of spending so long getting their accents right that they forget to give their characters any personality. Indeed, Roe is spectacularly dull.

Slightly more oddly, we also have the wonderful, award-winning New Zealand actress Rena Owen (Once Were Warriors, East West 101) playing the mysterious owner of a mermaid memorabilia shop who clearly knows far more about mermaids than what you’d learn from fairy tales. Owen doesn’t even try for a second to be American, so you do wonder why she’s even in this remote US town. She’s also given little to do except be mysterious and warn people about mermaids… before heading off to buy Powell fruits de mer by the sackful.

None of which makes you want to stick with the story. It’s interesting and has some good ideas, but the ideas are struggling against the casting, rather than being helped by it. You do wonder if Powell’s mermaid will wipe out the town on her quest, but will you care about any of the dead if she does?

Siren‘s a lot better, more interesting a show than it has any right to be, thanks to its embrace of horror rather than young romance. However, beyond Eline Powell’s central performance, it has little to really mesmerise the audience and keep them watching. I enjoyed what I watched but I think I’ll be turning back to port now.

Barrometer rating: 3

The Barrometer for Siren

The Last OG
US TV

Review: The Last OG 1×1 (US: TBS)

In the US: Tuesdays, 10.30/9.30c, TBS

I think it’s fair to say that 30 Rock was a success despite Tracy Morgan, rather than because of him. While there was a certain je ne sais quoi about his utterly spaced out performance as ‘Tracy Jordan’ that wasn’t a million miles away from real life, you weren’t watching 30 Rock for his great acting skills, line delivery or pretty much anything else that he had to offer. Jokes were funny because they were funny and could survive all of that, rather than because of anything Morgan did, and often jokes weren’t funny that should have been – thanks to Tracy Morgan.

The Last OG is almost conclusive proof that Morgan is a humour black hole. Morgan’s character in the show is a small-time idiot living in Brooklyn and dating Tiffany Haddish (The Carmichael Show). Unfortunately, his days of happiness are curtailed swiftly when he gets sent to prison. Fifteen years later, he emerges to discover that the world – and Brooklyn – have changed. Now he’s got to find his way in the world and maybe even get back Haddish using the skills he learned in prison, all without annoying halfway house owner Cedric the Entertainer (The Soul Man) too much. His only ally? One of the kids he used to hang out with who’s now all grown up (Allen Maldonado).

Tracey Morgan in The Last OG

Aspirational

Given that Jordan Peele is the co-writer and creator of the show, you’ll know there are at least some astute observations and good jokes to be had in this first episode, most of them stemming from Morgan’s culture shock. Brooklyn has gentrified and Morgan’s prison time is no one-way ticket to street cred. He can try to pass on words of wisdom to black kids, but they’re Sex and the City gay and would rather go off shopping with their girlfriends.

There’s also some good interplay between Morgan and Cedric the Entertainer, as Morgan tries to be funny and smart, while CtE undermines him like his own Tyler Durden. Haddish’s character is also interesting, as she’s escaped the ghetto, got married and had kids, and is now an aspiring politician whose fundraisers Morgan gatecrashes.

So lots of smart social satire… all of which Morgan wanders into like a brick on a pendulum tied to the back of a bull in a Debenhams china display. Everyone else does just fine, while Morgan delivers lines of dialogue like he’s slowly translating them from Japanese washing machine instructions written in 5pt green writing on a green background.

Cedric the Entertainer

Not that smart

All the same, it’s not that smart. There’s a whole bunch of clichés around prisons that get regurgitated. The fact that Haddish’s kids are actually Morgan’s, rather than her white husband (Ryan Gaul)’s, is inevitable. Those gay characters are borderline offensive. Sure, it’s TBS so we’re not expecting huge laughs, but we do from Jordan Peele.

This leaves us with a high concept show that has more or less expended its high concept in the first episode and a leading man who seemingly wants to lead you away from watching his TV show. There’s so little in the first episode that made me want to watch the rest and what there was was surrounded by Tracy Morgan.

YMMV when it comes to Morgan, of course, in which case you might enjoy The Last OG. Or you may just like laughing at Brooklyn hipsters.

Neither of those apply to me, though, so I think once is enough with this show. And no, I have no idea why it’s called The Last OG.

Alex Inc
US TV

Review: Alex, Inc 1×1 (US: ABC)

In the US: Wednesdays, 8.30/7.30c, ABC

How do you make money from podcasts? It’s an interesting question, the answer to which is usually “adverts”. But no one really makes much money that way.

One company that does seem to make money from podcasts is Gimlet Media, which was founded by journalist Alex Blumberg and produces business podcasts. I say it makes money, but really it’s just attracted a lot of seed funding and printed a load of T-shirts… while a whole bunch of people at Gimlet set up divisions and hire other people to try to work out how to make money from podcasts.

So far, their best idea seems to be: come up with ideas that they can sell to other people, who can turn them into things that actually do make money. So not podcasts then.

First up is Alex, Inc, a sitcom starring Scrubs‘s Zach Braff that’s based on Gimlet Media’s ‘StartUp’ podcast. Warning: you are just about to fall down a rabbit hole. What was StartUp about? It was all about Blumberg’s own attempt to launch Gimlet Media.

I wonder if the first season will end with Zach Braff agreeing to play the role of Zach Braff in a new TV series that’s all about the making of Alex, Inc.

Continue reading “Review: Alex, Inc 1×1 (US: ABC)”