Review: American Gods 1×1 (US: Starz; UK: Amazon)

American Gods

In the US: Sundays, 9pm E/P, Starz
In the UK: New episode available every Monday 

By all rights, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is a novel I should have in some lovingly crafted Folio Society edition, situated in pride of place on my bookshelf or on a small shrine. Pagan gods? Check. American setting? Check. Neil Gaiman? Check and double check – after all, I spent most of my university days not just avidly reading Gaiman’s comic book works, particularly Sandman, but looking like its titular character, too. This is basically a photo of my sister and me in the early 90s.

Sandman and Death

Imagine the confusion and fear among knowing bystanders when we met up.

And yet, somehow, American Gods passed me by. I’ve not read it; I’ve not even listened to any of the audio books of it. I don’t even want to, despite very much enjoying Gaiman’s work on Doctor Who and his novel (co-authored with Terry Pratchett), Good Omens. Odd, hey?

A new TV show, though – one co-showrun by the marvellous Bryan Fuller (Heroes, Hannibal, Mockingbird Lane, Pushing Daisies)? Maybe that’s more my speed now?

So, sign me up, but don’t expect comparisons with the original, only answers to the thorny question of whether it’s a good TV show or not.

The story follows the fantastically named Shadow Moon (Hollyoaks’ Ricky Whittle), a con serving a three-year prison sentence who’s released days early when his wife is killed in a car accident. Trying his best to make his way home for her funeral, he encounters obstacle after obstacle, until he comes across conman ‘Mr Wednesday’ (Lovejoy‘s Ian McShane) and his luck mysteriously changes. Maybe that’s got something to do with the leprechaun (The Wire‘s Pablo Schreiber) he also meets. At least, he says he’s a leprechaun, but he’s mighty tall, so Moon has his doubts. Probably not because of the height, though.

Discovering his wife wasn’t quite who he thought she was, Moon is tempted by an offer of employment as Mr Wednesday’s ‘heavy’, but before he even starts, he’s discovering that Mr Wednesday has some very, very odd, very nasty, sometimes completely faceless enemies. 

And that’s basically the plot of the first episode, which really isn’t that inspiring a piece of work. Not much happens other than establishing that Moon is rather similar to Luke Cage in terms of personality, if a bit less indestructible and without half the charm or catchphrases. There’s also little of the fantastical about it until the end, and what there is, largely doesn’t work, Schreiber’s leprechaun (who may be from Ireland. Or Russia) being an amalgam of stereotypes about Irish people being drunkards and fighters, rather than anyone liable to lead you to the end of any rainbow. I imagine that later episodes will be where we discover the rather important central conceit of the series that there’s a war between New Gods (such as technology) and Old Gods (such as Odin) being waged in America. That sounds more interesting, doesn’t it?

But there are some things that work. Ian McShane is obviously marvellous as the scheming Mr Wednesday (“Today’s my day” – gosh, I wonder who he might be), but what really lifts American Gods out of the ordinary – at least at this stage – is the mise-en-scène. Hovering here in roughly the same orbit as season 2 of Hannibal (ie not quite as perfect as season 1 but not as far up its own arse as season 3), American Gods does have some truly lovely and sometimes disturbing visuals, as well as the equally unsettling, jazzy dissonance of Brian Reitzell’s musical compositions. As it’s on Starz, there’s also quite a bit of the Spartacus gore along for the ride, too, with some blood tableaux that are often breathtaking.

Without those, there’d be little to mark out the show from any other piece of generic fantasy, though. There’s almost nothing of Gaiman or Fuller’s wit and wisdom in any of the dialogue and where it gets fantastical, it’s often in ways that make you scoff rather than wonder. 

Gaiman says that a lot of the first episode is new but still in keeping with the book, so I’ll give the show the benefit of the doubt for now and hope it gets better in later episodes as they return to the original text. There’s also a top cast of guest gods due later on (Crispin Glover, Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Stormare, Gillian Anderson, Orlando Jones, Corbin Bernsen, Jeremy Davies), which should make that task a whole lot easier.

But this isn’t the way back into either Gaiman’s or Fuller’s works that I was expecting. Still, maybe we shouldn’t expect miracles.

Review: Mary Kills People 1×1 (Canada: Global)

Mary Kills People

In Canada: Wednesdays, 9pm ET/PT, Global

Euthanasia doesn’t seem like the best subject for a comedy drama, even a dark one. In fact, it isn’t, judging by Mary Kills People, in which Caroline Dhavernas (Wonderfalls, Hannibal, Off The Map) plays a doctor who somewhat illegally helps the terminally ill to end their lives even sooner in exchange for a big pile of cash.

The easy flame against Mary Kills People would be that watching it makes you want to end your own life, it’s so dull. Easy, but true, unfortunately, since the opening episode that introduces us to Mary, her family, her partner in crime (Richard Short) is something of a slog that makes you long for the sweet release of death.

The opening is a misjudged failed euthanasia of 19-2‘s Adrian Holmes that ends with Dhavernas smothering him with a pillow then leaping out of a window. That’s still more exciting and better judged than anything that happens afterwards, which is largely about the logistics of Dhavernas’ operation, how she keeps it secret from her daughter and the fact she might be attracting the attention of some people she really ought to be avoiding. Attempts to forge a buddy-buddy relationship between Dhavernas and Short are stilted and lamentable, largely being discussions about which of their patients they’d have sex with.

The show wants to think it’s starting a conversation about the morality of euthanasia, but has nothing much to say on the subject having started the conversation. Is what Dhavernas doing right or wrong? Is it ethical to have a relationship with someone you’re about to murder at their own request? Big shrugs from Mary Kills People, but isn’t Dhavernas pretty? Ooh.

To the show’s credit, it is at least exploring a novel and bold idea from a novel and bold direction. But by the end of it, you feel that the whole thing is an attempt to redo Weeds in Canada with a slightly different ethical issue, rather than to do something genuinely groundbreaking.

What have you been watching? Including Goliath, Finding Dory, Chance and Frequency

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. There’s also the Reviews A-Z, for when you want to check more or less anything I’ve reviewed ever. 

Thanks to the Thanksgiving holidays in the US last week, lots of programmes were taking a slight breather and few new ones decided to stick their heads above the parapets. That means it’s been a quiet week for TMINE, with only Search Party (US: TBS) to deal with in the ‘new’ category and the regulars reduced to just Chance, DIrk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, The Flash, The Great Indoors, Lucifer, People of Earth, Supergirl, Timeless and Travelers – I’ll be dealing with them after the jump.

On the plus side, though, that did mean I could not only play catch-up with an Internet TV box-setted into our laps a little while ago, I could also watch a couple of movies.

Goliath (Amazon)
‘A legal thriller by David E Kelley! Whoopdy doo,’ I thought. Like most people, I immediately think of the likes of Ally McBeal, Boston Legal and Harry’s Law when I hear Kelley’s name; unlike most people, I also think of his reasonably poor efforts with Wonder Woman, the dismal The Crazy Ones and the putrid Wedding Bells

However, Kelley hasn’t always been king of fluffy backlash legal dramas. Back in the day, he created The Practice, a supposed antidote to the cutesy view of legal work perpetrated by LA Law; on said show, the story editor was one Jonathan Shapiro, a former Rhodes Scholar and professor of law.

Together, they’re responsible for Goliath, a legal drama that stars Billy Bob Thornton as a former top lawyer who’s fallen on hard times. Then Nina Arianda (Hannibal) turns up needing Thornton’s help with a case involving the supposed suicide of an engineer who worked for a major arms manufacturer. Before you know it, Thornton’s David is taking on the Goliath that is his old legal firm, which includes ex-best friend William Hurt, ex-wife Maria Bello (Prime Suspect) and newby lawyer Olivia Thirby (Dredd 3D), and the might of the US defence industry.

Mostly, this is a show that owes a lot more to Shapiro than Kelley tonally, being about legal clevery dickery and shady big name clients in the same way that Suits was when it started. Shapiro’s legal knowledge really shines here and Goliath goes through all manner of things you’ve probably never seen in a legal drama before (“complex cases”, using the rules of contempt to get evidence admitted, etc). It’s also quite dark, with bodies being found in car boots, witnesses being run over, police abuse and more.

But Kelley’s name isn’t on the sign simply to drum up trade. There’s a definite air of Kelleyisms to Goliath around the edges, ranging from some actual jokes through the daft names the lawyers at Hurt’s firm call each other (“The Mole”, “The Mouse”), Hurt’s facial scarring and his use of a clicker to communicate when he wants to be annoying, Thornton almost representing the forces of the un-PC against the PC tyranny of the Goliath-like enemy (Thirby has a stammer and uses the American Disability Discrimination Act to counter Thornton’s tricks; Bello is gay and has a girlfriend who also works at her law firm), to some distinctly dodgy attitudes towards women and some ethical issues to be considered, such as revenge porn and whether lawyers should break privilege to report wrongdoing by their clients. Arianda’s practice even feels a lot like the one in Harry’s Law.

Goliath is still a lot better than I was expecting, probably being the second-best original Amazon drama after The Man In The High Castle that I’ve seen. It’s also a lot tenser – I’m six episodes through the eight episode run and each episode has managed to ratchet up the claustrophobia as Thornton’s got closer to the truth and increasing danger. I’ll probably watch the final two episodes tomorrow, in fact.

But it’s still got enough Kelley daftness, is slow-moving enough and fails to make you care enough for the characters that I can’t really recommend it. If you like John Grisham-style legal dramas, though, this is certainly worth a look-in.

Frequency (200)
Since the TV adaptation is currently airing on The CW/Netflix and I’d never seen the original, I thought I’d give it a whirl just to compare and contrast, especially since it’s currently free on Amazon Prime. At its heart, like the TV series, Frequency is about a father and his grown-up child cop managing to communicate by radio over several decades and using information about the future to change the past – again, to prevent the father’s imminent death and to subsequently stop the change in history that is the mother being murdered by a nurse-hating serial killer.

Starring a whole bunch of people now famous from other TV shows (Jim Caviezel, Shawn Doyle, Elizabeth Mitchell, Andre Braugher, Noah Emmerich), it’s pretty much the same as the first season of Frequency so far, but with a few interesting changes, such as the dad (Dennis Quaid here) being a fireman not a cop and there being a 30-year time difference, not a 20-year difference. It’s a lovely idea and the film has an emotional depth that a lot of sci-fi movies lack, but I think I actually prefer the TV version, since the longer running time gives that a chance to explore a whole bunch of issues that the movie has to leave to montage moments at best, and the gender-swap to a daughter evens out the original’s not inconsiderable sidelining of women. 

Still, given it was set in 1999 (nearly 20 years ago now, guys), it’s almost like watching time travel anyway, with its reference to Yahoo! as a good stock option.

Finding Dory (2016)
The tear-jerking Pixar delight, Finding Nemo, saw a widower father searching the world for his partially disabled son, following the latter’s kidnapping. The twist? They were fish.

Here, in this sequel, their mentally challenged best friend Dory (Ellen Degeneres) comes to the fore as she remembers she had a family back in the day and despite her inability to form short-term memories, goes looking for her mother and father, Nemo and co in tow.

For about the first 10 minutes, this feels like a retread of the original but after that, Finding Dory sets its own path, introducing all-new characters and species that live in or near the marine park that Dory thinks her parents might be living in. It’s a lovely piece of work again, with some top moments of comedy and joy, but it never quite hits the emotional highs (or lows) of the original and the final act starts to descend into the silly. Admittedly, it is a movie about talking fish so silly is relative, I guess.

Something both parents and kids can enjoy, but not quite an absolute classic. 

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Review: Damien 1×1 (US: A&E)

Damien

In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, A&E
In the UK: Not yet acquired

666 problems but a she-jackal ain’t one.

Prequels and sequels to famous horror movies are all the rage right now. We’ve already had:

There’s also a pilot for a The Exorcist series on the way. Now we’ve got Damien.

Unless your knowledge of cinema is akin to that of a newborn child’s, that name should already be telling you what this is related to. In case it doesn’t, wee bairn, I’ll fill you in. Fresh off the back of the success of The Exorcist in the 70s, The Omen was Britain’s effort to cash in by taking seriously the Bible’s Book of Revelation. It details the birth and early childhood of ‘Damien Thorne’, the son of the US Ambassador to the UK (Gregory Peck) and his wife (Lee Remick). Except Damien’s actually secretly adopted and is really the son of the Devil and a jackal. Oh dear – he’s the Anti-Christ and he wants to bring about the Apocalypse.

Along the way, various people gradually work out that Damien has a ‘hint of the night’ about him, and are promptly rewarded for their imagination, detective prowess and faith in God with a gruesome, almost Final Destination-elaborate death.

Like The Exorcist, The Omen proved popular enough to spawn a couple of sequels, with that nice Sam Neill eventually becoming the grown-up Anti-Christ in The Omen III. However, Damien forgoes those two sequels in favour of continuing the first movie in its own way.

This time, it has that nice Bradley James (young King Arthur in Merlin) playing the grown-up Damien Thorne. Despite numerous flashbacks to the movie and its stalwart 70s fashions, Damien has apparently only just turned 30. He’s forgotten all about how his parents died, that governess of his committing suicide in front of everyone at his birthday party, those great big rottweilers that use to hang around protecting him and so on. He just wants to roam the world, taking Pulitzer-prize winning photographs of wars.

That is until he’s on assignment in Damascus and gets a literal baptism in blood by an old woman with white eyes who mumbles in Latin at him and says ‘It’s all for you.’ That’s not a good sign is it? 

After that, he starts to remember all those weird deaths that happened around him when he was growing up, in part prompted by all the new weird deaths that start happening around him. The question is, once he’s found his game-changing 666 birthmark and begins to believe for sure he’s a major player in the Bible: is being fated to be the Anti-Christ inevitable, like Norman Bates becoming a crazy serial killer in The Bates Motel, or can our Damien drink the blood of Christ, eat the body of Christ and accept Christ as his saviour so he can take up sheep farming or something instead, and all his friends can stop dying horribly?

Here’s a trailer and for a change, you can watch the entire first episode, too, below. Then we can discuss it after the jump.

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