Donald Sutherland in FX's Trust
International TV

What have you been watching? Including Trust and The Handmaid’s Tale

It’s “What have you been watching?”, your chance to recommend anything you’ve been watching this week

Hmm. Not many new shows out this past week. How strange. That means that as well as catching up on all the regulars I missed last week, I’ve mainly been concentrating on movies, such as The Avengers: Infinity War, and passing verdict on Killing Eve (US: BBC America; UK: BBC One/BBC Three).

Cobra Kai (YouTube Red) came out today and Danish YA dystopian drama Rain (Netflix) is out on Friday, so although it’s a Bank Holiday Weekend here in the UK, I’ll be giving them a whirl before next WHYBW if I can – I imagine the torrential rain we’ll no doubt be getting might help no end with that.

After the jump, though, I’ll be having a gander (at last) at Trust (US: FX; UK: Sky Atlantic), as well as the regulars: The Americans, The Good Fight, Harrow, Krypton, Legion, SEAL Team, Silicon ValleyTimeless, and Westworld. Plus Lovely Wife and I made it through the first episode of the returning The Handmaid’s Tale – we can talk about what larks that was, after the jump.

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Marvel's The Punisher
Internet TV

Boxset Monday: Marvel’s The Punisher (season 1) (Netflix)

The Punisher in all his incarnations has always been something of an accidental success. A former marine, Frank Castle turns lethal vigilante following the murder of his family by criminals, becoming judge, jury and executioner to those who would break the law. He had no powers, just his military training, a heap of weapons and a skull on his chest, and he was originally a bad guy – one of Spider-Man’s many badly becostumed adversaries in the early 70s.

Spider-Man and the Punisher

But it was that almost unique willingness to kill in comics that made him such a success that he eventually got his own comic and no fewer than three (pretty bad) film appearances, where he was played first by Dolph Lundgren, then Thomas Jane and finally Ray Stevenson.

However, his success ended for a while when a 2011 attempt by Fox to produce a TV series starring the character fell through.

But let’s now flash-forward to the era of Netflix and its Marvel superhero shows. The plan from the outset was very clear: there would be four one-season superhero shows – Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist – which would then lead into a team-up show The Defenders.

The first sign everything was going off-plan was when Daredevil got a second season. It’s hard to tell whether that had been planned from the outset; however, it seems likely given

  1. Netflix awarded Daredevil another season only a week after its first season aired
  2. The whole plot of that second season is vital to the plot of The Defenders

Nevertheless, what definitely wasn’t part of the plan was the success of guest anti-hero/baddie The Punisher in that second season. That can be put down to the ‘lightning in a bottle’ casting of Jon Bernthal. Bernthal’s always been part of the supporting cast, never the lead.

He’s Andrew Lincoln’s best bud in The Walking Dead, not Andrew Lincoln.

He’s Ben Affleck’s brother in The Accountant, not Ben Affleck.

He’s the guy Andrea Anders rejects in The Class to go back to her husband (although he ends up with Lizzy Caplan so it’s not all bad).

But as Castle, Bernthal was the undoubted star of the second season of Daredevil, a brutal match for Charlie Cox’s gymnastic lead – a blue-collar grunt to Matt Murdock’s white-collar, morally-torn lawyer.

Bernthal so occupied the role that it’s hard to think of anyone else being able to play the character and it wasn’t long before Netflix and Marvel realised what they’d got and decided to break with the plan and commission Marvel’s The Punisher, with Bernthal as its lead.

Punishing?

The question was what form the show would take. Would it follow on, for example, from the comics’, the movies’ and season 2’s general theme of a man giving ‘the punishment they deserve’ to mobsters, rapists, paedophiles et al who seem to be above the law and escaping justice? Yet, how would a white man with a lethal arsenal shooting up cities go down in an age of the alt-right, MRAs and mass-shootings by white men who feel aggrieved by society? And how would it go down against the liberal backdrop of Netflix’s other shows: Daredevil stuck up for the poor and oppressed; Jessica Jones deconstructed superheroes, male power and sexual violence; Luke Cage asked what a black man can do for his community and others against both oppression and police shootings; and Iron Fist looked at the responsibilities of the rich towards the poor and the rest of the world.

The various trailers Netflix produced in the lead up to the show’s released seemed to suggest business as usual for Frank Castle – lots of gunfire against a rock soundtrack. And yet, oddly, that’s not what Marvel’s The Punisher is. For the most part, the show is instead the white, working class male’s equivalent of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. It’s a look at family, responsibility, friendship, parenting, class, class loyalty, what it is to be in the military and to have brothers-in-arms, the consequences of violence, and the role of government in helping the working class. And oddly, there’s very little punishment meted out.

Here are those moderately misleading and spoilerish trailers. Slightly less spoilerish review of all 13 episodes after the jump.

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Mindhunter
Internet TV

Boxset Monday: Mindhunter (season 1) (Netflix)

Serial killers have been such a part of modern culture (and life) for so long, it’s hard to remember that we weren’t always aware of them or even that we never always used to call them ‘serial killers’. There were, of course, the Manson murders and Son of Sam killings, but the point at which we really started to feature them in popular culture can be traced back – more or less – to one man: Thomas Harris. It was his book and the subsequent movie Silence of the Lambs that introduced the world to Hannibal Lecter and the fictional serial killer.

Silence of the Lambs was actually Harris’ third book, the first being Black Sunday, which was about terrorism and was itself turned into a movie. To research it, Harris visited the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, where he learnt about serial killers and how the FBI was trying to catch them. It was this research that formed the basis of both Silence of the Lambs and his second book, Red Dragon, which was filmed as Manhunter.

Manhunter

Manhunter sees former FBI adviser Will Graham (William Petersen) brought back from medical leave to apprehend a serial killer known as ‘the Tooth Fairy’. However, he can only do this by adopting the mindset of a serial killer, something he does by visiting one of the killers he caught and who invalided him out of the profession: Hannibal Lecter.

The movie was heavily auteured by the then Miami Vice supremo Michael Mann, and reflects many of his then obsessions, ranging from the fashions and MTV-friendly soundtrack through to its love of police procedure. But it’s its superb cinematography, the central performances (particularly Brian Cox as Lecter) and the film’s mimesis that ensure it remains to this day my favourite film.

Manhunter is less well known than Silence of the Lambs, but it is arguably as important since it was the first movie to detail three things:

  • The importance of scientific forensics in capturing criminals
  • The idea of psychologically profiling serial killers – working out how they think in order to capture them
  • The idea that thinking like a criminal can ultimately make you just like them

The first gave us the likes of CSI (also starring Petersen), the second Profiler, Millennium et al, the last Luther and its ilk.

Se7en

The serial killer craze is still with us, of course, but it arguably reached its zenith in terms of popularity and quality with Se7en, a modern film classic and the movie directorial debut of David Fincher, who would go on to direct Fight Club, The Game, The Social Network and other greats. He’s one of my favourite film directors and Se7en is my second favourite film.

As auteured as ManhunterSe7en obviously has many things in common with its predecessor, but its biggest difference is its direction and cinematography. Fincher’s meticulously precise, calculated direction is the opposite of Mann’s flash. Everything moves at a slow measured pace, with minimal action, whereas Manhunter has frequent moments of adrenalin-rushing excitement. Mann (with the help of cinematographer Dante Spinotti) is all pastels and primary colours; Fincher’s love of black meant that he actually worked with cinematographer Darius Khondji to create a ‘silver retention‘ print of the movie to emphasis different levels of shade.

The two movies are both very similar yet hugely different.

And now, Mindhunter

As well as his movies, Fincher can also be credited with another important contribution to popular culture: the transformation of Netflix from a simple DVD library and streaming service into a prestige online TV network. For it was he who exec produced and largely directed the first season of House of Cards, Netflix’s debut in original programming. Had it been directed by a lesser person, it’s likely that Netflix would be thought of in very different ways right now and might not be anything like as successful.

Now for his latest Netflix project we have the answer to a question I never thought would ever be answered: what would have happened if the man who directed my second favourite film had directed my favourite film, too? Because we now have Mindhunter.

Yes, that was Mindhunter. Pay attention.

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US TV

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

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.

Mary Kills People
Canadian TV

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

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.