Berlin Station

Preview: Berlin Station 1×1-1×2 (US: Epix; UK: More4)

In the US: Sundays, 9pm ET/PT, Epix. Starts October 16 2016
In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, More4. Starts October 2015 2018

Peak TV‘ is the name given to the idea of there being too much TV for us to consume. Thanks to the Internet, cable, et al, it’s a lot easier for a company to ‘transmit’ content; also, more and more people want to make content. As a result, that means there’s an awful lot of TV out there being made by an awful lot of people. However, there’s only so much talent in the world and it’s starting to get spread pretty thinly, particularly around the world’s media industry, which means that there’s a lot of bad TV made by people who don’t actually know how to make good TV.

A while ago I came up with the idea of ‘cargo cult TV‘ – TV going through all the motions of a genre but without really understanding the rules of that genre. As a result, it’s missing something essential. I’d like to expand that to encompass the idea of people making TV but not really getting TV.

Take Epix. Until recently, Epix like AMC – aka American Movie Classics – before it, was content to air other people’s content before suddenly deciding to make some TV shows of its own. The first to make it out of the gates is Berlin Station, created by spy novelist Olen Steinhauer and set in… well, you can probably guess.

Now Berlin Station goes through all the motions of being both a proper spy show and a proper TV show. Nevertheless, it’s cargo cult TV. Something intrinsic’s missing from it, preventing it from being either a spy show or a good TV show.

Like other cargo cultists, Steinhauer and Epix have done their best to emulate TV producers. They’ve recruited a great big, top notch cast. The hero of the piece is our very own Dick Head, Richard Armitage, who’s no stranger to spying thanks to Chris Ryan’s Strike Back, Captain America and Spooks. They’ve got Michelle Forbes (Homicide, The Killing (US), In Treatment), Rhys Ifans (Elementary, Twin Town), Tamlyn Tomita (Babylon 5, The Joy Luck Club) and Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under), too.

They’ve found a German co-production partner, hired some actual German actors and flown all the way to Berlin to film everything. They’ve even done what every other political show has done of late and ‘stolen from the headlines’ – and, of course, since there are very few headlines about spying these days, that means Yet Another Edward Snowden whistleblower plotline. And they’ve hired a proper European film director for the first two episodes – Michaël Roskam (The Drop)

All of which is designed to fool the viewer into somehow thinking they’re watching a top, premium cable TV show.

Except they’re not. They’re watching pure cargo cult TV arse.

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What have you been watching? Including Master of None, You’re The Worst, Arrow, Doctor Who and Limitless

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.

The usual “TMINE recommends” page features links to reviews of all the shows I’ve ever recommended, and there’s also the Reviews A-Z, for when you want to check more or less anything I’ve reviewed ever. And if you want to know when any of these shows are on in your area, there’s Locate TV – they’ll even email you a weekly schedule.

I’m starting to lag a bit, as you may have noticed by the fact I’m writing this on a Saturday. It hasn’t helped that Netflix put out all of Marvel’s Jessica Jones yesterday, at the same time that Amazon Instant Video decided to do the same with The Man In The High Castle, both of which I’ll hopefully be reviewing in full next week. I was also still having to deal with the second half of the first season of Master of None.

So although I managed to review Into The Badlands (US: AMC; UK: Amazon Instant Video) this week, I’ve yet to get round to either Chicago Med – a hospital spin-off from Chicago PD which itself was a spin-off from Chicago Fire – and Crackle’s auction house drama The Art of More. Hopefully, I’ll get round to them on Monday, but on the strengths of the reviews of The Art of More and the strengths of both Chicago Fire and Chicago PD, I can’t imagine they’ll be shows worth sticking with.

All the same, and despite the fact a few shows are coming to an end anyway as December looms on the horizon, I think it’s time to make some room in my schedule by deleting a few programmes from my list, since The Bridge/Bron/Broen is returning to the UK tonight, guaranteeing I have two more hours of viewing every week to get through. And I haven’t even tried The Last Panthers on Sky Atlantic yet.

So I don’t think I can be bothered to watch the second episode of Donny!, and I think The Last Kingdom and The Beautiful Lie can be dropped without the world ending – Heaven knows I’ve been patient enough with them, as they’ve taken a long time to not do a huge amount so far.

I passed a third-episode verdict on the marginally improving Agent X this week, but I don’t think it really merits a second chance in this time-constrained time, despite the presence of Sharon Stone. I’m also going to give further episodes of Blood and Water a miss, since although it’s quite a brief show and it’s started to find its feet this week by turning into a sort of ‘Chinese-Canadian Detective meets In Treatment‘, with whole episodes just multi-lingual, three-handed interrogation scenes at the police station, the actual crime being investigated just isn’t that interesting. 

I’ll let you know what happens with Ash Vs Evil Dead once I’ve watched the latest ep. Supergirl would be off the viewing list by now if it weren’t for the fact I’m watching it my wife so we can mock its atrocious dialogue and plotting. Grandfathered is just too variable but hits highs enough and is charming enough that I might stick with it for a while. Blindspot‘s on Mondays – that’s probably the only reason I’m watching it now.

But I’ll be reviewing the lastest episodes of them and Arrow, Doctor Who, The Flash, Limitless, Master of None, The Player, and You’re The Worst after the jump, so we can talk more about them there.

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The BarrometerA Barrometer rating of 1

Third-episode verdict: The Affair (US: Showtime)

In the US: Sundays, 10pm ET/PT, Showtime

I’m three episodes into Showtime’s The Affair, in which Dominic West and Ruth Wilson each tell their side of their affair to a particularly interested bystander (spoiler alert: someone’s been murdered and they’re both being interviewed by a cop), and it’s still relatively easy to summarise: it’s outstanding, quality television, intelligent, thoughtful, emotional, incisive – beautifully acted and written.

The show is enjoyably slippery with the truth, with no objective only subjective reality presented, with West and Wilson’s stories having either different perspectives or outright contradicting each other, with no real clues unless you watch very, very closely as to who might be lying and when. Even then, there might be double bluffs, meaning we’ll have to wait to the end of the series (or perhaps even never) before we find out what really happened.

The writers do a good job of giving us the two sides of the story, although West’s is the harder to watch: he’s self-obsessed and bitter and the affair (as he describes it) comes more from disaffection, dissatisfaction and obsession; by contrast, Wilson’s story is about a woman coming back to life after the death of her son, and feels more joyful as she finds pleasure in life again. How much of that is because Wilson’s character is the better liar remains to be seen, though.

But you’ll note that I wrote ‘three episodes’, even though four episodes have now aired, and you’ll get a hint of the problem: it’s a hard watch. It’s rarely joyful or fun. It involves people who probably deserve an Amish-style shunning from society (especially the rich ones). It’s also paralysingly slow, taking three episodes before anything really happens. That means it’s taking me a week to summon up the enthusiasm to watch each episode. Once I do, I’m glad I did, but it’s a real struggle.

So while I do recommend this, as with the likes of In Treatment (from the same writers) and Rectify, I would say be prepared to have to work at The Affair. Whether it’s better to save up all the episodes for a binge watch or whether the drip drip drip of one a week will work better for you, only you can say. Certainly, you’ll need to be – in the words of many a job advert – a motivated self-starter. But, so far, it’s certainly been worth the effort I’ve put in, even if, being a remarkably lazy, couch potato-like creature, finding that effort has been harder than normal.

Barrometer rating: 1


Review: The Affair 1×1 (US: Showtime)

The Affair  

In the US: Sundays, 10pm ET/PT, Showtime

Oh imagine the irony: Detective McNulty – the son-in-law to Commissioner Rawls! For fans of The Wire at least, this is probably the most exciting thing about Showtime’s The Affair, in which Dominic West plays a New York novelist/teacher married to successful businesswoman Maura Tierney (The Whole Truth), but still forced to leech off her rich father, John Doman.

Because The Affair is slow stuff. Very very slow stuff. So slow that every so often it pretends to kill a child, just to ensure the audience stays awake.

But the fabulous BeTipul and In Treatment – which were created and written by The Affair’s co-creators Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem respectively – were equally slow, and The Affair is as psychologically engrossing, albeit in a very different way. It sees West going out to visit Doman with Tierney and his four kids in a resort town in Long Island for the summer, where he meets waitress Ruth Wilson (Luther), who’s recently lost her own child and is married to the abusive, cheating, embittered Joshua Jackson. West and Wilson hit it off and despite West having avoided all previous temptations to stray, he and Wilson end up having an affair.

So far so French, right down to the Gauloises, albeit with two English protagonists faking American accents only intermittently successfully.

The big twist is that the story is told in flashback, from both West and Wilson’s points of view. Literally told, because both West and West are relating their sides of the affair separately to another person for quite a surprising reason – but if I told you what that was, I’d be spoiling one of the first episode’s big surprises that don’t involve the fake-out deaths of one of West’s kids.

As a result, the episode is told in two parts, the first West’s, the second Wilson’s, and we see the same scenes told from two different perspectives and with two different build-ups and follow-ons. More importantly, we also see differences, since West and Wilson’s stories sometimes differ – for reasons that become clearer as the episode progresses.

Whom can we believe, when for example West portrays Wilson as a seducer, him as innocent, while she says the opposite? What is the true story? What actually happened?

All good questions, none of which gets answers before the end of the episode. Indeed, for all I know, we might never get answers, which to a certain extent might well be the point of the show: the real world’s lack of an objective truth, only subjective truths. But the show is also less about an affair per se, as about the fall out from an affair and how that emotionally impacts both those involved and those close to them.

Now, how much you’ll want to watch this may well depend on how much you’re likely to be interested in regular-type people doing regular-type things, albeit regular-type people with perhaps a bit more money than you or I have. You’re also asked to sympathise with adulterers, which might be something you can’t do – particularly with West’s character being a cock in both versions. The fact that Wilson so successfully played a sociopathic liar opposite The Wire’s Idris Elba in Luther – to the extent that a spin-off show based around her was planned by the BBC – throws in an additional supertextual element of doubt for the viewer aware of her past and the possible reasons for her casting.

But this is gripping stuff if drama rather than just explosions and ray guns* interests you. While West for once is the weakest acting link, Wilson and Jackson are both on excellent form and Doman is clearly relishing being more Borgia than Baltimore cop opposite West. Compared to the likes of Satisfaction, it’s considerably more grown up, while still avoiding the Rectify trap of absolute and tedious mimesis.

Probably the best drama of the fall season so far. If you’re in the US, you can watch the whole first episode on YouTube; if not, here’s a trailer.

* I loves explosions and ray guns, me. But there’s more to me than that.


Preview: Ironside 1×1 (NBC)

NBC's Ironside

In the US: Wednesdays, 10pm ET/9pm CT, NBC. Starts October 2

Ironside is one of those fondly remembered but actually pretty rubbish cop shows from the 70s that occasionally appears on re-run channels. Starring Raymond Burr as San Francisco’s paraplegic chief of detectives Robert T Ironside, the show ran from 1967 to 1975 and it largely had two things going for it: Burr, who was even more famously Perry Mason; and its memorable title sequence, which in case you’ve forgotten went something like this:

True, its heart was in the right place: after all, its message was that a guy in a wheelchair can solve crimes and apprehend criminals just as well as someone who wasn’t. It even surrounded Ironside with a ‘diverse’ range of assistants. Trouble is that gave Ironside the eternal reputation of being the show in which a token black guy pushes the hero white guy around in a wheelchair all day, but who doesn’t get to do much himself.

Now NBC have decided to remake Ironside and they’ve decided it’s time to fix that particular issue. Because now Ironside, as well as being a New York cop, is black – he’s played by LA Law/In Treatment/Sex and the City favourite Blair Underwood, who’s also one of the producers.

Laudably, that means we have probably the first black, physically challenged lead character in TV history (I’m pretty sure War of the Worlds doesn’t count). Hooray! Progress!

Unfortunately, though, so happy are the writers and network to have ticked off that particular box on their CVs, they’ve neglected to actually make the show anything but cliched. Or maybe that’s deliberate. Here’s a trailer – I’ll explain afterwards:

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