Despite his short life, Bruce Lee to this date remains the world’s most famous martial artist. While he was alive, there was many an imitator and even after this death, there were many who tried to piggyback on his fame or who claimed to be “the next Bruce Lee”. Small wonder then that the producers of Cinemax’s Warrior would wish to do the same by saying their show is “based on the writings of Bruce Lee” – even though it’s basically “Period Asian Banshee from the producers of Banshee“.
To be fair, Lee’s daughter Shannon is one of Warrior‘s producers and she did indeed have an eight-page treatment by Lee for a western TV series in which he would have starred. However, given that it was a treatment for ‘The Warrior‘, which (probably) ultimately metamorphosed into Kung Fu, I imagine there might have been a few copyright issues involved in a straight adaptation of that treatment.
So instead, Banshee‘s Jonathan Tropper fleshed Lee’s original ideas with his own characters and situations. In so doing, he’s basically recreated Banshee again, just in a different time and place.
Warrior sees 19th century martial arts prodigy Andrew Koji (The Wrong Mans, The Innocents) coming over to San Francisco from China. As in Banshee, our hero is looking for a woman from his past; as in Banshee, he’s a gifted fighter; as in Banshee, his skills mean he’s soon found by a local (Banshee‘s Hoon Lee) who helps put into a position of power; as in Banshee, that soon puts him into conflict with criminal elements in the city; as in Banshee, he doesn’t care about local rules and soon begins to shake up the status quo.
Science-fiction and espionage seem at first glance to be a perfect combination. Think of how many successful spy shows and movies over the years have also been science-fiction greats: Total Recall, The Champions, Alias, Airwolf and more. Indeed, there’s even a name for the genre: spy-fi.
Look a little harder, though, and you’ll notice that the greater the emphasis on the science-fiction, the worse the show is. The more SF a James Bond movie contains, the worse it gets (invisible cars, anyone?). That’s because – to generalise broadly – the spy genre is fundamentally about people, whereas science-fiction is more about ideas. Those spy-fi classics? They were the ones that remembered to concentrate on both the people and the ideas.
Now we have Counterpart, a show that does its best to give us both big ideas and little people, while also invoking the magic blessing for any spy show: a Berlin location and obvious Cold War parallels. JK Simmons (Law & Order, Whiplash, The Closer, Oz) plays a very little person at a UN spy agency based in Berlin. For 29 years, he’s worked uncomplainingly in the ‘Interface’ department, where he goes up every morning in the same suit to read out sentences to another man from ‘the Other Side’ in a small room, before returning to his desk. His requests for promotion go unheard and he can’t even get an interview.
Meanwhile, his wife Olivia Williams (Dollhouse) is in hospital after being run over six weeks previously, and her brother Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica, Perception) is trying to get her returned to the UK and her ‘true family’. Simmons is passively nice and unable to say or do much in response to all these injustices.
Then one day, he’s dragged by boss Harry Lloyd (Robin Hood, Game of Thrones) to meet chief of security Ulrich Thomsen (Banshee). A top spy from the Other Side wants to defect. The Cold War that’s been going on is thawing and assassin Sara Serraiocco has come over to start killing people on this side – including Simmons’ wife.
Thing is, the Other Side is a parallel universe with which Simmons’ universe has been in contact with for decades but which has diverged over time, and the would-be defector is… JK Simmons.
Now the two Simmons, spy and Mitty, must work together to stop the assassin and whatever’s caused this thaw in the Cold War, while simultaneously looking at each other to see how their lives turned out so differently.
Regrets, I’ve had a few
Although similarities with Fringe are obvious, this is far more a well worn story of male wish fulfilment: the little man, over the hill, wishing for a more exciting life than he ever had, suddenly getting a chance to lead that life. It was the substance of many of the early Man from UNCLEepisodes and it’s the essence of Total Recall.
Here, the difference is that firstly, Simmons is a much better, more plausible little man/spy than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Secondly, while there is action and excitement to be had, the show works far better as an examination of roads not taken, what choices you can make in your life that will take it in completely different directions and how much of who you are as a person is caused by external rather than internal factors. Great efforts are made against the overly-stylised sci-fi background to make Simmons and all the other characters seem like real people, albeit with variable success. It’s certainly helped by the supporting cast, with a range of Brits giving great, understated performances, particularly Lloyd, but Thomsen is as good as always and there are also some fine German actors in minor roles, too. More good actors are on the way, too, with the near ubiquitous Richard Schiff and Stephen Rea set to do a turn soon, too.
It works less well as a spy show than you might hope, though, and that’s because of the sci-fi throwing everything out of whack. The Interface department looks cool, for example, but seems ludicrous – why are they doing this? What possible reason could they have for it? Whatever it is, it’ll be nonsense when revealed, I bet you. There’s also far less of Berlin to be seen than you might hope and while the show avoids the tourism of Berlin Station, there’s the obligatory ‘exotic’ club scene.
All the same, Counterpart offers more or less the best of both genres. It’s not exactly Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; neither is it Blade Runner. But as a moderately entertaining piece of metaphysical musing – with guns, parallel universes and a surprisingly kick-ass JK Simmons – Counterpart has a lot to offer.
Marvel took the movie world by storm with The Avengers, a little film one or two of you may have seen. One of the most important aspects of The Avengers was the fact it wasn’t the first movie to features its protagonists, all of whom had appeared in the preceding movies Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk,Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, either as the leads or as co-stars.
A staple of the comic book world, the crossover was something that had never really been tried in the movie world before and audiences loved it.
With a few reservations. The most notable of these was that there wasn’t a huge amount of diversity in that superheroic line up: lots of straight white men as leads and usually as the villains, too, but women, people of colour et al were either in the supporting cast or completely absent. And while the movies have slowly added black characters such as Falcon and Black Panther and bumped up the role of supporting superheroine Black Widow to the point where Captain America: Winter Soldier was as much about her as about Captain America, solo movies with black or female superheroic leads are still a little way off.
So, when Netflix and Marvel announced they would produce a series of comic book TV shows together, three things were almost compulsory. The first was lower budgets. That meant having none of the movie universe characters in any of the shows, which meant having to pick completely new characters. The second was that there would be crossovers, which in turn would lead to one great big TV series featuring all the new heroes. The third was diversity would be key.
And thus we have a new group of superheroes: ‘The Defenders’. Not to be confused with ‘The Avengers’, obviously. The Defenders is also the name of the ultimate TV show at the end of the list.
The sequence started with Daredevil, a really superb opening featuring probably the one character many people would have heard of, thanks in part to the Ben Affleck adaptation over a decade ago. Daredevil’s also blind and a lawyer who does pro bono work defending the poor and helpless from big business.
That was quickly followed up with the suprisingly excellent feminist deconstruction of the entire genre, Jessica Jones, and then Luke Cage, an affair almost plotless because rather than being a superhero show, it largely was more interested in discussing black culture, history and what is the true and correct course of action for the modern black man of honour. A quick second season of Daredevil proved less satisfying, as it ditched gritty reality to pit our hero against a bunch of immortal ninja called ‘The Hand’.
All the same, for all their pros and cons, diversity – globs of it everywhere.
Which makes Marvel’s Iron Fist something of an odd choice. Because although it fits well with Mark Zuckerberg’s idea of diversity, it’s almost a slap in the face to the other shows’ efforts.
Young Danny Rand, the white male son of white corporate mogul billionaries, is on their private jet to China when it crash lands in the mountains of Tibet. Coincidentally, that’s just as the mystical city of K’un-L’un appeared from heaven on its 15-year regular cycle, journeying between planes of existence. Taken in by the warrior monks who guard K’un-L’un, the orphaned boy is trained in their ways and eventually succeeds all trials to become ‘the Iron Fist’, K’un-L’un’s ‘living weapon’ who uses the power of the heart of the Shou-Lao the Undying dragon, to defend the city from the Hand, whenever it appears on Earth.
However, when K’un-L’un returns to the Earthly plane again 15 years later, Danny abandons his post and heads to New York where he discovers the Hand are already in residence at his parents’ company, Rand Enterprises. Soon, he must prove who he really is, take back his company from the bad people who now run it, and stop The Hand.
Yep, that’s right: Iron Fist wants you to care about boardroom politics and a spoilt, immature billionaire who wants to clear his family name.
Bad decision by Marvel and Netflix? Well, actually, despite some very odd decisions, a very shaky start, and a very long list of flaws, Marvel’s Iron Fist turned out to be really, really enjoyable stuff – due in part surprisingly because it features Sacha Dhawan (Outsourced, 24, The Tractate Middoth, Line of Duty, An Adventure in Time and Space) as a sarcastic warrior monk named after a Swiss ski resort.
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 Blacklistafter 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, TheMagicians, Man SeekingWoman and the season finale of Cardinal.One of them is getting a promotion – can you guess which, tigers?
In the US: Fridays, 10pm, Cinemax In the UK: Sky Atlantic. Starts October
Good direction can go a long way towards making a not-great show seem better. Quarry is such a show, benefitting pretty much with every scene from Greg Yaitanes’ direction. The former Banshee exec producer and director might not have created Quarry, but directing every episode of this first season, he’s certainly made his mark on what is simultaneously both Banshee and ‘anti-Banshee‘.
As I pointed out in my review of Quarry‘s first episode, thematically the two shows have a lot in common, with Logan Marshall-Green’s ex-Vietnam-vet turned hitman ‘Quarry’ enduring a lost love, the lure of a criminal lifestyle that draws him in and the simultaneous acknowledgement of crime’s costs, just as Banshee‘s ‘Lucas Hood’ had to experience. Since then we’ve also had greater emphasis on Damon Herriman, the gay fellow criminal who helps Marshall-Green, who is the Job of the piece.
But while Banshee was also often very beautiful to look at, it was a fast-paced, modern show that revelled in its pulp origins and ultra-violence, whereas Quarry wants to be a languid, visual, 70s, noirish piece that finds violence upsetting. All Quarry’s acts of violence are coming back to haunt him, practically in every scene, whether they’re his alleged war crimes from Vietnam or the murders he committed in the first episode.
The ex-soldier turned hitman isn’t exactly a new trope, but it’s more or less only Yaitanes’ direction and the largely non-American cast that lift it out of the ordinary and into the realm of quality TV. Would the second episode have been much good without the bravura first person POV car chase? Not a chance. Indeed, the whole show could have been a slower moving, slightly less ridiculous Blindspot if it had had a different director.
But visuals can only get you so far. Quarry‘s plot is slow-moving, its characters unappealing, its message muddled and confused. It’s not saying or doing anything you won’t have heard before in countless genre shows and movies. In fact, it’s probably saying less, and you could have watched Peter Mullan doing more or less the same act he’s doing here over on ITV in The Fixerfor free.
Nevertheless, just as you would look at a painting for its aesthetics rather than its plot, you could certainly watch Quarry just to see some genuine innovation in visual storytelling on US TV. The story itself is no great shakes, but the visuals could keep you going for a whole season.
Barrometer rating: 3 TMINE prediction: Might make it to a second season, but a harder sell for Cinemax than Banshee