The Haunting of Hill House
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Fourth-episode verdict: The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix)

Available on Netflix

The Haunting‘s one of those classic horror movies that’s thoroughly deserving of the title. Directed by Robert Wise and based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel of the same name, it sees a group of people taken by a scientist to an old house to investigate whether it’s really haunted or not. These people, some sceptics, some psychic, some a bit unhinged, slowly learn that either the house is haunted or they are.

Wise’s direction doesn’t involve horror or ‘jump shocks’ but is instead based around the slow build up of tension and horror, as we try to piece together what’s happening and our imagination runs riot. It’s a technique that’s been used countless times since and the likes of Ghostwatch owe The Haunting a huge debt.

The Haunting of Hill House

Cycles of horror

Horror, like every other genre, is subject to trends and the style of horror exemplified by The Haunting was to reach its zenith in The Exorcist, before changing cinema rules meant gore took over as the mode of choice for directors by the mid-70s and 80s. Since then, we’ve had The Blair Witch Project give us more than a decade of “found footage” horror, while the Saw franchise and the likes of Eli Roth dialled up sadistic horror to the max. Meanwhile, the “jump shock” school of horror – aka “quiet, quiet, BANG” – has had a renaissance in movies such as The Quiet Place.

Thanks to director Mike Flanagan (Occulus, Absentia, Before I Wake) we also now have a return to at least something of the original The Haunting‘s tension-building horror with a new adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House for Netflix as a ten-part series. To expand the story out to that much of a runtime, Flanagan does a lot of tinkering with the underlying story, making the various original characters siblings, yet otherwise keeping them similar. He also gives us two timelines.

In the first, set in 1992, we have a family move into the old ‘Hill House’, a fixer-upper if ever there was one. They intend to remodel it and redesign it, before selling it on, so they can make enough money to settle down permanently and build and live in their ‘Forever House’. Tragically, however, before their dreams can be attained, the family has to flee in the middle of the night, leaving mother Carla Gugino behind dead. What happened? Father Henry Thomas (ET) claims it was ghosts; others say it was suicide.

The whole world wants to know, so naturally when son Steven (Michiel Huisman) is down on his luck, the aspiring novel writes a tell-all book, which makes him rich – but ostracises him from his sisters, mortician Elizabeth Reaser, child psychologist Kate Siegel and struggling addict Oliver Jackson-Cohen.

Sister Nell (Victoria Pedretti)? Well, she’s a bit batty these days thanks to all the dreams. Of course, things take a turn for the worse for her once she decides to go back to the house one night, leaving the rest of the family to piece together what happened to her and revisit old memories – that’s when old memories aren’t revisiting them…

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God Friended Me

Third-episode verdict: God Friended Me (US: CBS)

In the US: Sundays, 8pm, CBS
In the UK: Not yet acquired

CBS is, of course, the home of procedural, but it should garner some kudos at least for having invented – or at least modernised – the ‘faith-based’ procedural with God Friended Me. The show sees aspiring atheist podcaster Brandon Micheal Hall join forces with online journalist Violett Beane and best friend Suraj Sharma to try to work out why a Facebook account calling itself ‘God’ is taking such an interest in his life and offering friend recommendations. When Hall accepts God’s suggestions, he ends up helping to repair people’s lives and bring a little happiness to the world, since it turns out they’re all in need of some human care. Such are the coincidences of it all, maybe that account really is God – he and Beane are going to try to find out, at least, and along the way, Hall might be reconciled with his preacher father (Joe Morton) as a reward for his efforts.

Reviewing the first episode, I exhorted readers to put their cynicism aside for what is essentially the new media version of Early Edition. It may be technically illiterate and theological nonsense, but only the jaded will be annoyed by a show that sees millennials (including a journalist) trying to help others and making other people’s lives better. It’s easy-going, genial stuff with a pleasing enough cast. What’s to dislike?

God Friended Me

The word of wood

Trouble is, since then, it’s been a bit blah and lacking in conviction. Despite the fact that the man Hall rescues at the start of the first episode turned up at the end to save Beane’s life, episode two sees Hall implausibly arguing that it’s definitely not God. The show’s writers seem to want to maintain that ambiguity, since they’ve dialled down the improbable levels of coincidence in favour of something just as easily explainable through secular methods. If it’s God, there’s a hook; if it’s a bloke in a dug-out with night-vision goggles and a WiFi hotspot, it’s all just a bit creepy.

On top of this unwillingness to explore its own boundaries, the show is also a bit trite and offers pat solutions to every emotional concern. Episode two sees an uncommunicative autistic boy naturally turn out to have useful musical savant abilities; meanwhile, episode three sees a tough ex-cop willing to take in a kid who was caught stealing. How trusting. How good that he doesn’t just turn your place over.

Now, dear reader, you don’t have to worry about your theistic cynicism being challenged, just your trust in human nature.

God Friended Me

Mere mortals

The show at least does still have a decent cast and set of characters. While there’s little research gone on into online journalism, podcasting or even being a vicar, the jobs at least have a semblance of reality to them and everyone’s heart is in the right place. It’s a little beyond credence that Morton hasn’t yet used ‘God’ as a Thought For the Day to talk to his son about God, now he’s listened to the podcast, but maybe he will at some point.

The relationship between Hall and Beane is probably the show’s highlight, however, so it’s a shame that after the first episode, they do so comparatively little together and Beane’s skills are no longer used as well as before. The writers really need to work more with these two to fine-tune the relationship, but the end of episode three suggests that’s a work in progress.

All in all, God Friended Me is a decent enough, faith-based procedural that won’t offend anyone, but won’t really excite anyone either. I might keep watching, in the hope that the show manages to get its formula right or at least do something as interesting as it did in the first episode, but it’s just as likely that I’ll give up on it next week.

Barrometer rating: 3

The Barrometer for God Friended Me

A Million Little Things

Third-episode verdict: A Million Little Things (US: ABC)

In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, ABC
In the UK: Not yet acquired

ABC’s A Million Little Things does not have a million little things going for it. Indeed, by the end of episode three, it already looks like it’s used up all it did have going for it. A slightly obvious attempt to rip off This Is Us, it sees three male friends’ relationship change when their fourth number commits suicide. They begin to re-evaluate their lives and start revealing their deeper emotions to each other. So many secrets! So many flashbacks! So many emotional moments!

To its credit, A Million Little Things is far less willing to indulge in forced emotional blackmail than This is Us is. Episode two was genuinely weepy at times, as ‘our band of dads’ get together to try to look after the daughter of their dead friend, and the show did earn those tears through drama, rather than simply the situation. It’s also less keen on serving up shiny new secrets every episode and is more content answering the secrets it’s already posed.

Trouble is, the initial secrets all seem to have been answered and those that remain either aren’t very exciting or seem easy to guess. So why bother watching? On top of that, the show’s raison d’être is “men talking about their emotions for the first time”. Nice idea, but the show started from a slightly repetitive foundation – one of the friends was planning to kill himself just as the fourth friend did kill himself; it then built on that foundation very little, the result so far seeming to be in episode three, “If you talk about your emotions, you will be ostracised, because no one wants to hear your bad secrets”. That’s not very encouraging and the whole response needed to produce that outcome seems manufactured.

Very few things

This forced drama goes against that initial selling point versus This is Us. And without any new secrets and with only forced drama now to rely on, there’s very little else going for A Million Little Things. The cast are still good, the female characters have finally been rounded out, James Roday proves there’s more to him than Psych, but the story engine powering the show along appears to have spluttered out into little more than musings about why people have affairs or become sad in a relationship. And the answers provided are pretty standard. And if the PA is planning on embezzling or has a secret plan from beyond the grave she’s following, I’m not sure I care.

All in all, then, after a promising start, A Million Little Things is getting crossed off the viewing list. A shame because a drama about men exploring men’s issues in a deeper, more emotional manner than we normally get on TV might have been worth watching. Unfortunately, this isn’t that show.

Barrometer rating: 3

The Barrometer for A Million Little Things

Internet TV

Review: Titans 1×1 (US: DC Universe; UK: Netflix)

In the US: Fridays, DC Universe
In the UK: Acquired by Netflix. Will air in 2018

‘Tis the season to launch new streaming TV services, apparently. You’d think there were enough already, with the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Crackle et al already here and charging a healthy $10 or so a month for a subscription, but ‘No Large Media Conglomerate Left Behind’ and all that. Disney (which owns Marvel) is contemplating its own service, while WarnerBros, which is already mulling its own streaming service, has just launched another one for its DC Comics property.

It’s going to end badly, you mark my words.

Anyway, a streaming TV service needs TV to stream. Although DC Universe has a decent back catalogue of movies and TV series, a lot of DC’s comic properties are already doing nicely on other networks so are tied up elsewhere. The Flash, Arrow, Gotham, Supergirl, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Constantine, Krypton, and Black Lightning won’t be gracing DC Universe yet. Instead, the company is working through some of its lesser, quirkier properties. Later down the line, we’ll be seeing live-action Swamp Thing and Doom Patrol series, but first up, we’re getting Titans.

Unsurprisingly, to ensure its first scripted outing is a success, DC Universe has chosen to commission the US’s most powerful and prolific TV producer Greg Berlanti (producer of virtually all those other DC superhero shows, plus the likes of You and a few other shows, too) to head it. Equally unsurprisingly, it’s pretty damn good. Who needs Batman, hey? F*ck Batman.

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