What have you been watching? Including Chicago Justice, Prime Suspect 1973 and The Blacklist: Redemption

It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently and your chance to recommend anything you’ve been watching.

March is here and with it comes Spring! Snowdrops, wee fluffy little bunnies and chocolate eggs are on the way, as are a big bunch of new shows. This week, on top of passing an impending verdict on The Good Fight, I’ll also be reviewing two US time travels shows that aired last night: Time After Time and Making History. Not sure why they waited until Timeless finished before starting, but they did. There may be some other things, too, but I’m lazy and haven’t looked yet.

A few other new shows have also appeared on our screens, although none of them really warranted proper reviews:

Prime Suspect 1973 (UK: ITV)
It’s hard to look back now through the distant mists of time, past sequels and remakes to 1991, when Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect appeared on our screens. An amazingly good piece of TV that makes you weep for what’s happened to ITV – and indeed BBC – drama in the quarter-century since, it still stands the test of time and I heartily urge you to watch/rewatch it, since it’s currently available to view on the ITV Hub for free.

A career-transforming piece for star Helen Mirren, it saw her playing DCI Jane Tennison, a discriminated against Met Police detective who has to win over her male colleagues in order to first get, then close, a case against a possible serial killer, back when those were still rare things in the media. Flipping traditional structures on its head, the show was more about the accumulation of evidence and building of a case than whoddunnit, since we know probably whodunnit right from the outset – although some of the show’s power comes from its ambiguity and whether they’ve genuinely got the right man. 

These days, ITV (motto: “Is it a crime drama? Is it a period crime drama? No? Then it’s not on ITV”) seems to have given up on creating truly original new shows in favour of developing prequels to its back catalogue (what next? Brideshead Revisited: The Prep School Years?). So, following on from the success of Inspector Morse‘s origin story, Endeavour, we now have Prime Suspect 1973, in which a young Jane Tennison (Emerald City‘s Stefanie Martini) is a mere WPC learning the ropes of policework in between having to make cups of tea for the male officers. But the murder of a teenage prostitute and the benevolent support of the investigating DI (The Astronaut Wives Club‘s Sam Reid) give her an opportunity to shine.

Based on Lynda La Plante’s own prequel novel, Prime Suspect 1973 is at least decently executed. Thematically, it sits nicely as a rejoinder to Life On Mars’ ‘white male privilege’, pointing out that Sweeney-like fun might have been good for certain people, but women, minorities, the unluckiest members of the working class and others all tended to get shafted. It also deals neatly with class, with Maida Vale posh girl Tennison having to work extra hard to prove her interest in the working class populace of Hackney. And it does all this without sticking the boot in, giving us nuances and exceptions to show reality is a lot messier than simplistic sociological theories.

Martini is surprisingly good and makes for a nicely mardy young Tennison. It’s also a cracking touch to get Cracker‘s ‘Panhandle’, Geraldine Sommerville, to play her mum. But Aussie Reid is slightly odd casting and his choice of accent throws off all the questions about Tennison’s poshness, since he sounds posher than she does. Period detail is pretty decent, even if some of the sideburns look stuck on, but it seems at times like it’s trying more to look like Life On Mars’ idea of 1973 than actual 1973. Still, props for the use of Pink Floyd’s ‘Time’ in the soundtrack.

But is it even a tenth as compelling as the original or even La Plante’s dry run at a Prime Suspect prequel, Above Suspicion? Not at all. I might stick around for episode two, though.

The Blacklist: Redemption (US: NBC)
I abandoned The Blacklist after its second season got too convoluted and daft, even by its own standards. The last I heard, Tom Keen (Ryan Eggold) – evil husband of Megan Boone – was an orphan raised by Lance Henriksen to do evil spy things and was going undercover to be a German neo-Nazi.

Turns out that since then, we’ve discovered that his dad and mum are still alive and are Terry O’Quinn and Famke Janssen, the latter being a blacklister who runs a secret organisation that does things for the government that would otherwise be too dangerous. Plus he and Boone are back together, have a baby, and rather than play at being a German neo-Nazi, Eggold’s now a house-husband.

Except The Blacklist: Redemption drags Eggold away from all that to go on undercover missions for Janssen, although only because O’Quinn wants him to inflitrate her organisation. Why? Because. Except Eggold must never reveal that he’s actually working for O’Quinn. Why? Because.

At least, that’s what I’ve gleaned.

On the face of it, a spin-off from The Blacklist with Eggold is a good idea, since he was actually one of the best things about the original series. But the producers do nothing to help turn that idea into a viable drama. As you can tell from above, it’s all so convoluted and too unforgiving in its set-up that anyone who didn’t bother watching season 3 and beyond of The Blacklist (is Red still having problems?) is probably going to give up on the impenetrable mess before they’re five minutes in.

Yet even if they do decide to stick with it, it’s just atrociously written nonsense that makes even less sense than the mothership, but with no James Spader to make it palatable and none of the original’s unique format.

Chicago Justice (US: NBC; UK: Universal Channel – starts March 30, 9pm)
Time was that famed producer Dick Wolf only needed Law & Order to show you the two sides of the two groups in the US criminal justice system who represent the people: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. Now, he needs two different TV shows altogether just to show Chicago’s system. Maybe that’s because it’s Chicago and things are done differently there.

Launched in a triple episode with Chicago Fire and Chicago PD (all the victims were dead so no need to visit Chicago Med, I guess), Chicago Justice is all about Chicago public prosecutor and former baseball player Philip Winchester (Strike Back, The Player). There are other public prosecutors (Carl Weathers, Anna Valdez) but the show’s not so fussed about them here because they’re not the sons of Michael Moriarty’s character in Law & Order.

Chicago might have a bit of a rep for corruption, but here Winchester gets to hurdle a very low morality bar by fighting sleazy Bradley Whitford’s sneaky defence lawyer tricks and spurning helpful but false confessions to prove using truth, justice and the American way that a teenager stalker did in fact burn to death 39 kids because he was evil. 

The script stops short of going “ooh, the Internet and that Facebook and the Tumblr – they’re full of the bad kids who spend too much time indoors rather than playing all-American baseball” and if you squint, there’s a useful message in there that you could potentially extract about consent, privilege, radicalisation online, etc. But it’s such a ham-fisted piece of work that Winchester might as well be riding a horse wearing a white cowboy hat as he shoots a moustache-twirling villain.

Still, that’s what the audience for these shows wants. Me? Not so much.

After the jump, the regulars: 24: Legacy, Billions, The Flash, Fortitude, The Good Fight, Imposters, Legion, The Magicians, Man Seeking Woman and the season finale of Cardinal. One of them is getting a promotion – can you guess which, tigers?

Continue reading “What have you been watching? Including Chicago Justice, Prime Suspect 1973 and The Blacklist: Redemption”

US TV

Review: Taken 1×1 (US: NBC; UK: Amazon)


In the US: Monday, 10/9c, NBC
In the UK: Tuesdays, Amazon

Pierre Morel’s Taken is a classic action thriller. For those who by some miracle haven’t seen it, it features Liam Neeson playing an aging former spy who’s now down on his luck now he’s divorced from his wife Famke Janssen. He also doesn’t get to see his teenage daughter Maggie Grace (Lost) very much. But when Grace goes on a holiday to Paris with one of her friends and is abducted, Neeson puts into practice his ‘very particular set of skills that [he’s] acquired over a very long career’ to find Grace and rescue her.

As I mentioned quite some time ago now, it’s basically the movie that cemented Liam Neeson’s reputation as one of the West’s top action and martial arts stars. It’s not without flaws – certainly the idea that Neeson would go into paroxysms of panic at the thought of his daughter going to Paris as she would be far safer in her home town of Los Angeles is a little bit laughable. But it’s much smarter than you’d think and has some great action sequences. Just don’t watch Taken 2 or Taken 3 since they are not good movies.

Taken obviously has some unique features: Neeson isn’t a spring chicken; he’s a family man but has an estranged wife and daughter; he operates virtually alone, with only a friend or two with equally useful special skills to help him; the film is set in Europe; and Neeson has all manner of dead-drops, contacts and tradecraft to draw on in his challenge.

Strangely, NBC’s Taken uses none of this to try to tell a story that probably didn’t need telling – how Leeson got his special skills. Except it doesn’t even do that.

A prequel series, it stars Clive Standen (Vikings) as the young Liam, now revealed to be an ex-Green Beret who served in Colombia fighting drug cartels. Now back in the US, he’s on a train with his sister when she’s killed during a shootout with some men Standen thinks were after him. He then has to go on the hunt to find the man who sent them and who wants to punish him for some of his past actions. 

Although he doesn’t know it, he’s drawn the attention of a covert unit headed by Jennifer Beals (Flashdance, The Chicago Code, Proof) that operates outside the rest of the US intelligence community. Wanting to get to said bad guy, too, she’s happy to use Standen as bait but if he can get there by himself, that’s a win, too. 

Guess whom she wants to hire by the end of the episode…

Taken is as much a prequel to the movie as Bates Motel is to Psycho, being resolutely set in modern times rather than the 70s or 80s, right down to ubiquitous iPhones. But at least Bates Motel aspires to set up the events that lead to its parent movie in some way. Here Standen arrives fully formed as an action hero, in little need of building up an already potent skillset that nevertheless seems unlikely even for a Green Beret. There’s the occasional reference to his not being married or having children yet (“Pray you never have a daughter”), but that’s about it.

Neither does it embody any of those unique qualities of the movie. The show’s clearly setting up Standen becoming part of a undercover team to fight drug cartel actions in North America (and possibly South America), so is going to be almost nothing like the movie. Indeed, rather than being a prequel to Taken it’s better to think of the series as NBC’s attempt to do its own version 24, since it has a more or less identical set-up, with Standen basically Jack Bauer in the Kim-less seasons, Beals and co the CTU of the piece.

Standen is at least a decent stand-in for both Sutherland and indeed Neeson – a former international Thai boxer and fencing gold medalist, he was also born in Northern Ireland and actually makes the effort to do a sort of blended American-Northern Irish accent à la Liam. Also among the cast is The Unit‘s Michael Irby, who’s obviously got a good action pedigree to draw on, too.

Although there are plenty of moments during the pilot where you find yourself asking “Why doesn’t he just…?” or “Why did he do that, FFS?”, Taken also does at least have some surprisingly good action scenes (unlike Taken 2 and Taken 3) and from time to time, actually does something surprising, different or unusual from the usual beats and twists of action TV plotting.

Nevertheles, Taken is largely still a generic series that offers little to really differentiate it from any other semi-ensemble action TV show. It could be worth watching if later episodes take the show in new or unusual directions or make it more similar to the movie, but at the moment, Taken is Taken in name-only.

What have you been watching? Including Doubt, Patriot, Training Day and Billions

It’s “What have you been watching?”, my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently and your chance to recommend anything you’ve been watching.

Real-world demands got the better of me last week, so I thought I’d do WHYBW nice and early this week, just in case the world explodes or something – at least you’ll have something to read as we all float off into the aether.

Elsewhere, I reviewed a bunch of new shows, though: Newton’s Law (Australia: ABC), Imposters (US: Bravo), Bellevue (Canada: CBC) and The Good Fight (US: CBS All Access). I’ve also passed third-episode verdicts on: Riverdale (US: The CW; UK: Netflix), Powerless (US: NBC), APB (US: Fox), Imposters (US: Bravo) and Legion (US: FX; UK: Fox UK).

That means that after the jump, I’ll be discussing two weeks of the regulars: 24: LegacyCardinalDC’s Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, Fortitude, The Great Indoors, Lethal Weapon, The Magicians, Man Seeking Woman and Powerless. I’ll also be looking at the season finales of Son of Zorn and Timeless, as well as the return of Billions. For a bit of excitement, you can guess which one of these I’ll be dropping from the viewing schedule.

But I have tried three new shows as well that didn’t warrant full reviews.

Doubt (US: CBS)
Katherine Heigl is the brilliant, impulsive but quirky and flawed lawyer at a New York ’boutique’ legal firm full of brilliant, impulsive, quirky and flawed lawyers. Trouble is, she’s falling for the rich guy she’s defending but he might be guilty…

Despite an awesome cast (Heigl, Laverne Cox, Dulé Hill, Elliott Gould, Dreama Walker, Ben Lawson, Cassidy Freeman) and obviously being intended to be slightly comedic, Doubt is so bad as to be unwatchable. It’s insulting stupid, as clumsy as a drunk rhino in its writing and has dialogue designed to shatter bowels. I had a feeling that this was never going to go the distance and hey, would you look at that – it’s been cancelled after only two episodes, a record for the 2016-2017 season. 

Patriot (Amazon)
Spy comedy-thriller in the style of Wes Anderson, in which intelligence officer Michael Dorman must assume a perilous ‘non-official cover’ as a mid-level employee at a Midwestern industrial piping firm, in order to prevent Iran from going nuclear. The trouble is, as his spy dad Terry O’Quinn points out, Dorman sings folk music to ease his stress, but he’s becoming increasingly truthful with his lyrics…

All of which is funny enough and you get it all explained to you in the first ten minutes of the first episode. After that, though, the High Concept runs out and you’re left stuck with a show about a process engineer who sings songs about killing Egyptian physicists in order to preserve US interests overseas. Some nice ideas, but not really enough to support an entire episode, let alone an entire season.

Training Day (US: CBS)
Adaptation of the Denzel Washington movie in which a young rookie cop is partnered with an older, wiser cop to learn the ropes. The twist is that younger cop (Justin Cornwell) has been sent to spy on the older cop (Bill Paxton), who’s suspected of not just bending the rules but of being liable to break them quite severely.

The show sets itself up as a sort of American Braquo to question what exactly makes a good cop. Are idealism and the rule of law the best and only way to fight criminals? Or is the real-world too messy and must a cop break the rules in order to best serve his higher purpose? And even if he does, if he works well with the community and gets results, shouldn’t we look the other way?

However, whatever side of the argument you support, Training Day isn’t going to answer its questions definitively because it bears as much resemblance to reality as chocolate-flavoured beachball. People are diving out of windows clutching babies to avoid explosions, automatic gunfire can’t penetrate wooden door frames, lone police officers can get into heavily armed drug dealers’ houses with a single shotgun and without killing anyone. It’s just nonsense.

As a show, it’s so daft and pointless, I actually saw the first episode three weeks ago and completely forgot I’d seen it. Unfortunately, it is now Bill Paxton’s swansong, so I thought I should at least mention it. 

Continue reading “What have you been watching? Including Doubt, Patriot, Training Day and Billions”

US TV

Review: 24: Legacy 1×1-1×2 (US: Fox; UK: Fox UK)


In the US: Mondays, 8/7c, Fox
In the UK: Tuesdays, 9pm, Fox UK. Starts February 14th

When 24 first aired, it was a revolutionary series in many ways. The conceit that the show played out in real-time over a full 24-hour day in 24, one-hour episodes was original to say the least and took serialised storytelling to the logical limit. It also featured convention-breaking direction, rescuing split-screen shots from their 70s cemetery.

More importantly, it was notionally a Conservative TV show. Airing just a few weeks after 9/11, 24 could have horribly misjudged the public mood. But a daring tale of how honourable family man Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), a former special forces soldier turned counter-terrorist agent, was able to fight back against the terrorists and win proved to be the tonic the American people needed at the time and was immensely popular. True, his tendency towards extreme ruthlessness and even torture, which creators Joel Surnow and Robert Cochrane had piloted even more extremely on La Femme Nikita, caused liberal apoplexy now it was on network TV, but it was something the audience didn’t really care about.

The show changed with the times. It adapted to the Obama years’ move away from waterboarding et al and was even able to fudge the shift of network TV away from 24-episode runs of shows to 12/13-episode runs through the simple use of a 12-hour delayed epilogue. However, its tendency to shock viewers by killing off much-loved cast members at regular intervals grew predictable and ultimately led to there being no much-loved cast members left except Kiefer Sutherland several seasons before the end.

Which must have posed a bit of a quandary for the producers when they were planning a new season of 24, because Kiefer – he no want to do 24 no more. He doing Designated Survivor. He happy to produce but he no happy to act.

Hence 24: Legacy, which copies format and general attitude and has some links to the original, but absolutely no Jack Bauer. Instead, we have Eric Carter (The Walking Dead‘s Corey Hawkins), a retired US army ranger, whose unit killed a terrorist leader. Despite his having a new job and new identity, the terrorists have found him and the rest of his unit, and want them all dead – although not before whichever one of them has a very important McGuffin reveals where it is.

Hawkins has to find out what it is, where it is and evade and stop the terrorists, with only the help of Mirando Otto – the former Counter Terrorist Unit chief and potential next First Lady to potential President Jimmy Smits. Because being 24 there’s a mole. Shocker, hey?

Indeed, despite the entirely new cast, the new show revisits many of the original’s traits. There’s snarking between computer technicians (including the cousin of one of 24‘s most famous techies). There’s also all manner of insane – and insanely stupid – twists and ideas, such as Carter asking a violent gang member who hates him to look after his wife

One new innovation that builds on the previous show is that rather than having Middle Eastern terrorists in the even numbered seasons, European terrorists in odd-numbered seasons, there are both Middle Eastern and European terrorists to deal with this time round. Yes, everyone – double bubble!

Problem here is that the European terrorists are from Chechnya, so are inevitably going to be Muslims, just like their Middle Eastern counterparts. The question is, coming as it does on the heels of President Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’, has 24: Legacy guessed the Zeitgeist with its Islamophobia as accurately as 24 did with its first season, or is it marching out of step with its potentially horrified viewers?

Time will have to tell on that one, I guess. But purely on a kinetic level, the show does at least manage to maintain the levels of adrenaline that its predecessor did, giving us action scenes aplenty shot by directors who know what they’re doing. Eric Carter is no Jack Bauer, but even Jack Bauer wasn’t really Jack Bauer until season two, and character development was never 24‘s strong point – all that really mattered was what Bauer was prepared to do and why. It’s actually surprisingly easy to slot someone completely different into the same role and for everything to still carry on exactly the same as before.

24: Legacy‘s plot is outright bobbins, with so many holes in it you could use it as a string vest. Characters are thinly drawn and exist only to perform specific plot functions. Its understanding of technology is laughable. Its unpredicatability is predictable. Its attitudes are borderline racist or maybe even just flat out racist. 

But my gosh is it exciting. Still.

US TV

Review: Riverdale 1×1 (US: The CW; UK: Netflix)


In the US: Thursdays, 9/8c, The CW
In the UK: Available on Netflix. New episode every Friday

If all you know about American comics involves superheroics, Archie is a bit of a surprise. First published in 1939, Archie is one of the few comics consistently still sold in US supermarkets, its sales often matching those of Batman at times, and it’s launched numerous spin-off titles in its time, too – UK readers might not have heard of him, but you’ll have heard of Josie and the Pussycats, who first started life in Archie‘s Riverdale.

Archie‘s success is odd, since it’s not about fights, threats to the world, crime and existential angst. Instead, it’s all about red-haired teenager Archie Andrews and his life, love, dreams and friendships in a 50s-esque small town, with a particular focus on his near-eternal love-triangle between girl next-door Betty Cooper and rich girl Veronica Lodge.

Archie, Veronica and Betty

The idea of an Archie TV series therefore sounds a bit bizarre. The idea of it being made by Greg Berlanti sounds even stranger. Sure, Berlanti is the king of TV comic-book adaptations at the moment, with Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow swelling The CW’s airwaves already and yet more in the pipeline. But those are all superhero comics and that’s just not Archie.

Yet in the hands of both Berlanti and Archie Comics’ chief creative officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Riverdale is actually delightful. Just delightful. Despite it being full of murder.

It takes a certain amount chutzpah to try to do Twin Peaks again in the exact same year that said show returns to our screens, yet Riverdale is effectively the ‘Twin Peaks-isation’ of Riverdale, taking all the familiar elements of the comics, throwing them up in the air, adding in a murder-mystery, then seeing where they all land in the present day.

Here, Archie (Shortland Street‘s KJ Apa) is a would-be musician and potential member of the Varsity football team. Having spent the summer working for his dad’s construction company, he’s now got abs to die for, giving best friend Betty (Surviving Jack‘s Lili Reinhart), Betty’s gay best friend Kevin Keller (Casey Cott) and members of the football team girl, boy and bro boners aplenty. Even members of the faculty find it hard to keep their hands off Archie – although Josie and her Pussycats seem immune to his charms.

Betty – who’d quite like her and Archie’s friendship to be something more – is all ready to make a play for him and invite him to the dance, when into the Chock’lit Shoppe diner walks Veronica (Camila Mendes), the daughter of rich but disgraced Hiram Lodge, who’s relocated back to her mother (24‘s Marisol Nichols)’s home town of Riverdale to start a new life. Instantly, she attracts Archie’s attention. 

However, Archie’s not quite himself because of what happened over the summer. What happened over the summer? Well, that’s Archie’s secret, but as narrator Jughead (Cole Sprause) reveals as he types out his novel at the diner, it might well have something to do with the mysterious disappearance of Jason Blossom, twin brother of the town’s chief mean girl Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch). 

What’s fascinating about the show is how nice it is – almost a modern day Dawson’s Creek or Hidden Palms – with literate, mature teenagers having deep, meaningful conversations with one another and generally being nice and witty. Veronica and Betty may be in a love triangle with Archie, but they also become fast friends, Veronica turning over a new leaf in her life following her father’s disgrace to want to be more than just a stereotypical rich b*tch. And there’s a scene of just Betty dancing by herself that’s almost pure joy.

Indeed, everyone’s almost impossibly mature, with Cheryl Blossom putting Betty down as being “fat, like season 5 Betty Draper”, Veronica making over Betty later on to become “like season 1 Betty Draper”. Mad Men references? It’s a sign the audience for the show isn’t expected to just be teenagers. In fact, with the likes of Mädchen Amick (Twin Peaks) and Luke Perry (Beverly Hills 90210) playing Betty’s mum and Archie’s dad respectively, it’s clear that the show wants to attract the interest of Archie readers who were teenagers in the 90s, too.

Even if you never read Archie, try Riverdale as it’s a delightful show for people of all ages – one that avoids the saccharine with its surprising twisting of the story into Lynchian territory.