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.
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.
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.
Who launches new shows at the start of December? Not many networks, which is why I haven’t reviewed too much in the past week, although you may have caught my third-episode verdict on Shooter (US: USA; UK: Netflix) if you were hanging on my every word.
But with Thanksgiving over, all the regular TV shows have come back – at least until their Christmas breaks in a week or so. That means that after the jump, I’ll be taking a look at the following regulars:
US Ash vs Evil Dead, Chance, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Designated Survivor, DIrk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, Falling Water, The Flash, Frequency, The Great Indoors, Lethal Weapon, Lucifer, People of Earth, Son of Zorn, Supergirl and Timeless
For one week and one week only, thanks to the fact there was the four-way superhero crossover on The CW, Arrow also makes a return. Will I stick with it afterwards? Maybe – after all, not only will I be dropping at least one show this week, I’m also going to be promoting a show, too…
Surprisingly, though, a couple of networks decided that actually, the start of December is a perfect time to launch a new TV show:
Incorporated (US: Syfy)
Hailing from no less a pair of minds (or at least their production company) than Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Incorporated is one of those ‘futuristic thriller’ things set in the near future where the whole world’s gone to pot: corporations now run everything and either you work for them in the ‘green zone’ living it up and holidaying on the beaches of Reykjavík now that global warming’s properly kicked in or you live out in the ‘red zones’ in favelas, fighting for your life while trying to make a quick buck selling one of the last three or so cigarettes made from real tobacco that exist in the world.
Against this backdrop, you have former red-zoner Sean Teale (Skins) sneaking his way around a top company at the behest of Ian Tracey (Continuum, Intelligence, Travelers) in order to find out where the sister of pal Eddie Ramos is. Can he work his way to the top of the corporate ladder, by any means necessary, including framing his rivals so they get a visit from scary Dennis Haysbert (24, The Unit)?
Incorporated is ostensibly a futuristic industrial espionage thriller, but is really 49% Gattaca, 49% Elysium and 2% Soylent Green. While clearly a lot of thought has gone into imagining this future Earth of self-driving cars and face transplants – although even today we have better IT – little thought has gone into working out why we should care about Teale and his problems or any really complex bits of industrial tradecraft. Oh look, here comes a scene where Teale has to steal some data from a computer while he’s in someone else’s office. Can he copy it all in just a few minutes? Now – maybe not. In 2074? Of course he bloody can with his 100Tbps USB 23.0 interface and still have time left over to play holographic Tetris with his cranial implant.
The only interesting and new thing about the show that I noted was the use of capoeira as the favella martial art of choice, which was a nice touch. Otherwise, slow-moving and oddly devoid of human interest.
פאודה (Fauda) (Israel: Yes; UK: Netflix) Somewhat different from Netflix’s other Israeli spy show – the comedy Mossad 101 – this is a political thriller from Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, based on their experiences of doing military service in the IDF’s Duvdevan special unit. It sees former Mista’arvim (undercover counter-terrorist) commander Lior Raz (The Gordin Cell) being lured from his vineyard to supervise an operation – the capture of a Hamas leader known as ‘the Panther’ (Hisham Sulliman), whom Raz supposedly killed two years earlier. Except the Panther isn’t dead and everything doesn’t quite go as planned…
As with most Netflix ‘originals’, this is actually a simple acquisition, this time from Israel’s Yes network, where the show aired last year, winning no fewer than six of Israel’s equivalents of BAFTAs, the Ophirs, including Best Drama. I’ve only watched the first episode so far, and that’s a relatively plot-heavy piece that leaves little time for any real character development. But it’s action-packed, sympathetic not only to Arabs but also Hamas (surprisingly enough), and is pretty even-handed, with our heroes even taking unarmed civilians hostage at one point.
There’s nothing I’ve seen, beyond its novel setting and authenticity, to make it stand out from any other good guy/terrorist Moby Dick piece, but it’s certainly promising enough to make me want to watch more.
The Crown (Netflix)
I’ve been promising for weeks to cover this, but we’ve been stalled at episode 8 for a month now, so time to at least discuss what I’ve seen so far. The first of seven or so seasons, each focusing on a different decade of her life, The Crown is a moderately fictional biopic of none other than Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy from Crossbones, White Heat, Going Postal).
Season 1 starts off giving us a woman who had no plans to do much except be a wife, mother and horse breeder, until the death of her father King George VI (the miscast Jared Harris from The Other Boleyn Girl, Mad Men, Fringe, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadowsand To The Ends of the Earth, when Netflix should have stumped up the cash to get Colin Firth to redo his The King’s Speech turn) catapults her and hubby Philip (Matt Smith – Doctor Who, Terminator: Genisys) into one of the most constitutionally important roles in the UK. In an age of increasing modernity, with the monarchy increasingly looking like an anachronistic relic, Foy then has to find a role for herself as well as for the Crown, while juggling the competing demands of her husband, duty, previous kings and queens, her randy sister Margaret and Prime Minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow).
While there are attempts to give the show some Game of Thrones-like qualities, thanks to the machinations of Churchill, abdicated uncle Edward VIII and quasi-father-in-law Lord Mountbatten (Greg Wise), The Crown really sits as a halfway house between writer Peter Morgan’s The Queen and The Audience. Oddly episodic for Netflix thanks to the nature of real-life, the show is something of an unplanned origin story, going from historic incident to historic incident in the 1950s, showing us how Elizabeth might have evolved from someone whose most important thought was whether to take her husband’s adopted surname to being someone with the power to depose the government if she so chooses – albeit running the risk of losing all power if she ever exercises it.
Unlike The Audience, which was firmly on Elizabeth’s side, making her an ambitious woman with plenty of ideas for government that she has to put to one side, The Crown is less concerned with this Elizabeth and her supervising of Margaret’s scandalous love life, and is more on the side of Philip, something helped perhaps by Smith’s magnificent performance/impersonation. Here, Philip’s more notorious qualities are toned down to make him a sympathetic, dedicated naval officer (albeit one who would rather have been in the air force), loving husband and father, and firm embracer of modernity, forced to abandon his ambitions and kneel to his wife by the necessities of the throne and the Crown.
There are parts of The Crown that feel made up, particularly anything to do with Edward VIII or Churchill, and although a little research reveals that they are actually absolutely true, it doesn’t help with the show’s verisimilitude. Foy, who’s shown herself to be sparky in other shows and is almost perfect casting as the young Elizabeth, is nevertheless done no favours by Morgan. He tosses her a few bones, such as being able to repair a truck thanks to her wartime service as a mechanic, or her requests for a proper education to supplement the constitution-focused training she got as a child, which she’s able to use to outmanoeuvre polticians. But that’s largely drowned out by thankless duty after thankless duty after tragic loss being dropped on her shoulders – such is the burden of ‘the Crown’.
But it’s beautifully made, highly enjoyable, far more palatable than Downton Abbey, frequently funny, frequently tear-jerking, often romantic and just like Elizabeth, finds a reason for the monarchy in this day and age.
We will watch the rest of it. Just as soon as lovely wife’s finished Master Chef – The Professionals, The Grand Tour, My Kitchen Rules Australia, and Strictly Come Dancing. Oh yes, and The Walking Dead.
In the US: Sundays, 10pm ET/PT, Showtime. Starts January 17 In the UK: Not yet acquired
Back when Suits started on the USA Network, it was a refreshingly strong show about lawyers that took a different tack from most legal dramas – it almost never ventured into the courtroom. Instead, it was all about the moves and counter-moves that lawyers made outside the courtroom to force their opponents to concede without the cost and randomness of a trial. Unfortunately, over the years, Suits‘ real-world chess-playing fell by the wayside, in favour of relationship-based drama and comedy, but the first couple of seasons were hugely enjoyable pieces of Machiavellian manipulation.
A little known fact about Suits is that originally, it was going to be about investment bankers. The show did eventually venture into that realm, where it was clear there was a very powerful pecking order in the world that made those legal eagles look like mere sparrows.
Of course, there’s a group of people who make investment bankers look like wrens in the scheme of things: hedge fund managers. Managing billions and potentially worth billions themselves, depending on how you look at them, they’re either the oil that prevents the wheels coming off the modern financial world or sociopaths that destroy others purely for their own personal gain.
Billions is a show that gives us Suits to the max, in that a pits a hedge fund giant (Damian Lewis) against America’s top lawyer, the district attorney (Paul Giamatti) in a chess match that would make even Harvey Specter balk. Lewis is a genius of analysis, both of figures and people. He’s made billions by knowing how to combine the two, deducing who’ll do what, why and how to invest accordingly. He’s also worked out how to play the PR game – he may be worth billions, but he’s given hundreds of millions to 9/11 charities and the families of all his co-workers who died during that tragedy.
There’s also a very strong chance he’s made at least part of his fortune through insider trading.
In turn, Giamatti has been raised since birth by his lawyer dad to think through every move and counter move white collar criminals might make. He knows whom to prosecute, when to prosecute and what it’ll get him, and he knows how to play the PR game, too.
When an SEC official brings evidence to Giamatti that Lewis might have broken the law, Giamatti has to decide whether now is the time to take down Lewis or whether he’s finally met the man who’ll break his undefeated prosecuting streak. The best legal chess match in America is about to begin.
But while Billions is in many ways an excellent drama that has all the best qualities of Suits in its heyday, with smart people doing smart things to outwit each other, it’s also just a little too Showtime for its own good.
There is a famous paradox. Although Knight Riderclaimed it was Zeno’s Paradox, it’s not. But it is at least a paradox. Here it is:
What happens when an unstoppable force hits an immovable object?
What’s the answer? Into the Badlands. How so? Because it’s an actual, real-world test of that paradox. It takes the unstoppable force that is the Hong Kong martial arts movie and confronts it with the immobable object of an AMC TV series.
Despite the likes of Indonesia’s The Raid coming along to challenge them, Hong Kong martial arts movies are, of course, the fastest genre in the world. If you have any interest in martial movies, you watch Hong Kong martial arts to see the best – and fastest – martial artists the silver screen has to offer. I’m most partial to classic Jet Li myself, but Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan et al have all formed part of my viewing habits since Jonathan Ross’s Son of The Incredibly Strange Film Show revealed their delights to me back in the 80s.
And the slowest genre in the world? AMC TV series. The network practically fetishises slowness:
There must be a guy at AMC that stops you after one sentence of your pitch and says, “whoa whoa, save some of this for season two!”
And Into The Badlands is a deliberate attempt to bring these two genres together. Rather bizarrely the brainchild of Smallville creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, it stars Daniel Wu, an American actor but the star of dozens of Hong Kong martial arts movies.
The show is set in a post-apocalyptic America. This isn’t that surprising: martial arts date from before guns and are made largely redundant by the presence of guns, so a martial arts movie usually needs to have a reason for there to not be any guns – something somewhat problematic in modern-day and even historic America, but not so hard in a post-apocalyptic, post-technological society. Unles you turn the guns into a virtue, of course.
As with most other post-apocalyptic societies, everything’s become weirdly patriarchal and feudal in Into The Badlands, with seven ‘barons’ now running America, following a series of wars. Each has made their territory safe and stopped the wars by getting rid of guns. In return, everyone either learns how to be a ‘Clipper’ – martial arts soldier cops – assuming they’re male or goes to work in the fields picking poppies or getting married to the Baron.
Wu plays one such Clipper, who patrols the territories, enforcing the justice of his increasingly unstable, increasingly bewived Baron (Marton Csokas from Falcón, Rogue, The Equalizer, The BourneSupremacy). One day, he comes acrossa peaceful boy sought after by another Baron, ‘The Widow’, only to discover that he gets superhero killing powers at odd moments.
What will he do? WIll he take the boy into the lawless ‘Badlands’ between Barons’ terrorities, looking for the boy’s mother and answers to his own past? And will he do it before the Sun expands into a Red Giant and dies (aka the next AMC Upfronts)?
So for a long time now, this ‘ere blog has had a USP in terms of recommending shows: The Barrometer, which itself replaced The Carusometer. This takes the long view, requiring a minimum viewing of three episodes before it’s willing to give a cheesy grin and a rousing showtune – and the all-important thumbs up or thumbs down to the show.
But I often wonder if that’s too much or even few. Some shows you sense are never going to be good from the outset, while others genuinely do take a long time to get to the point (I’m looking at you here Rubicon – 10 episodes before you reveal your brilliance? Really?).
All I can do is guess. However, Netflix knows better. Apart from its top secret way to covertly view your every move as you sit in front of your TV screen or monitor (shh, don’t tell anyone), it also can analyse exactly how far you get into a show before you decide you’ve got to watch the rest of it or abandon it altogether. And they’ve just released the results in a shiny infographic (click it to make it bigger):
There’s also a list:
Arrow — Episode 8
Bates Motel — Episode 2
Better Call Saul — Episode 4
Bloodline — Episode 4
BoJack Horseman — Episode 5
Breaking Bad — Episode 2
Dexter — Episode 3
Gossip Girl — Episode 3
Grace & Frankie — Episode 4
House of Cards — Episode 3
How I Met Your Mother — Episode 8
Mad Men — Episode 6
Marco Polo — Episode 3
Marvel’s Daredevil — Episode 5
Once Upon a Time — Episode 6
Orange is the New Black — Episode 3
Pretty Little Liars — Episode 4
Scandal — Episode 2
Sense8 — Episode 3
Sons of Anarchy — Episode 2
Suits — Episode 2
The Blacklist — Episode 6
The Killing — Episode 2
The Walking Dead — Episode 2
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt — Episode 4
Although it’s worth remembering that the Netflix viewing experience is different from watching TV weekly, as you can see, it’s never the pilot episode that grabs virtually anyone, so clearly I’m onto something there.
But there are a few surprises in there. Eight episodes before being grabbed by Arrow? Who waits that long? And episode five for Marvel’s Daredevil, rather than the bravura episode 2? How odd.
Oddest of all: how can anyone get addicted to Sense8?