And as well as Maggie Gyllenhaal, you get no fewer than two James Francos (hence The Deuce).
And as well as Maggie Gyllenhaal, you get no fewer than two James Francos (hence The Deuce).
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.
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?
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.
In the US: Wednesdays, Hulu
For most people in the UK, Hugh Laurie is Hugh Laurie. He may have played Gregory House in House for umpteen seasons, but he’s also the guy from Blackadder, Bertie Wooster in Jeeves and Wooster, and Stephen Fry’s comedy writing partner for most of the 80s and early 90s.
For most Americans, though, he’s House. He is the grumpy, misanthropic, genius American doctor from House. End of. So you can kind of understand why Laurie would take on a two-season role as an eponymous doctor again, if only to cleanse American viewers’ memories by playing something similar, but crucially different in one big regard: he’s nice.
Based on the novel by Ken Humm (John from Cincinnati), Chance sees Laurie playing a consultant psychologist, who tries to sort out treatment for people who have neurological problems. When Gretchen Mol (Life on Mars) is referred to him with disassociative personality disorder, which she says started after her cop husband Paul Adelstein (Prison Break) began to abuse her, he tries to help her but soon the husband is coming after him.
Meanwhile, the non-confrontational Laurie is in the middle of a no-fault divorce from his wife Diane Farr (Numb3rs) and needs money. When he takes his antique desk to Clarke Peters (The Wire) to be sold, Peters tells him he could get nearly twice as much money if it still had the metalwork on it. Fortunately, Ethan Suplee (My Name is Earl) works for him and could add the missing metalwork if Laurie doesn’t mind a little deception. In turn, Suplee doesn’t mind a little bit of ultra-violence and is potentially willing to help Laurie out with his other problem…
I’ll play a little game now. I’ll list a few things and you have to say at which word you realised what the show’s biggest influence is.
San Francisco. Psychiatry. Blonde. Femme fatale. Different personalities. Hitchcockian strings.
Well, if you haven’t got it already, the answer’s Vertigo, one of Alfred Hitchock’s finest, in which Jimmy Stewart falls for Kim Novak who plays two women who turn out to be just the one. Certainly, Chance has huge ladels of both Vertigo and film noir spread all over it. There’s also lashings of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanours, with Suplee and Peters leading the normally ethical Laurie towards a life of escalating moral infractions towards possibly even murder.
But Chance is certainly a lot more than that and knows that you know what its references are. Certainly, Laurie doesn’t do anything massively stupid, instead doing all manner of smart, prudent things rather than leaping in at the deep end. There’s also a certain House of Cards – David Mamet’s, that is – quality to it all which the show is also keen to highlight. Is maths tutor Mol really disassociative or is she faking it? Is Adelstein really doing all the things that he seems to be doing or is the surprisingly bright Suplee actually doing it all to lure Laurie into a huge con? Could they even all be in league with one another?
Chance wants you to be wondering all of these things, which is why, despite its depressing qualities, it’s also compelling, very tense and claustrophobic (rather than vertiginous). The double meaning in the title, which becomes hugely important in the second episode, makes you wonder exactly how much of what’s going on is genuine coincidence and what’s not – or even if Laurie’s character is facing a Sixth Sense discovery that he’s had a brain injury himself. Even if you’re not exactly sure what the trap is, you can feel the jaws slowly closing around Laurie, who’s a good guy who wants to do the right thing.
It’s a good, smart, well-paced thriller that’s definitely worth a try.
Barrometer rating: 2
Would it be better with a female lead? No
TMINE’s prediction: Commissioned for two seasons
In the US: Fridays, 10pm, Cinemax
In the UK: Sky Atlantic. Starts October
As fans of The Great British Bake Off have recently discovered, format rights are very important these days. In fact, there have been 60-odd legal disputes over format rights around the world, over the years.
This is odd, since legally, there’s no such thing as format rights. After all, it’s one thing to argue that as you created suave British superspy James Bond, someone else writing books about suave British superspy James Bond without your permission is doing something untoward; it’s quite another to argue that no one else should be able to make a TV show that involves amateur cooks making cakes.
Of course, there’s a grey area somewhere between those two extremes. How about books featuring British superspy? Or superspies of any nationality? Or just regular spies? What about baking competitions that have a host called Mary Berry and all the same rounds as The Great British Bake Off, that’s called The Pretty Good British Bake On?
It’s somewhere lurking in this middle ground that we found Quarry, Cinemax’s latest excursion into adventure, drama, things being shot and ladies getting naked. It stars Logan Marshall-Green of Traveler, Dark Blue and Prometheus fame as a soldier returning home to Memphis after the Vietnam War, where he discovers not only that veterans aren’t that welcome, particularly ones implicated in rather heinous massacres, but also that jobs aren’t that common. However, the rather mysterious Peter Mullan (Miss Julie, Red Riding, My Name is Joe, Tyrannosaur) is willing to pay him and fellow war buddy Jamie Hector (The Wire) rather a lot of money to put their soldiering skills to work killing people, and before you know it, the body count is piling up.
If that sounds a bit familiar, it’s because of one of two things.
The shows aren’t exactly 100% identical and the Quarry series was written way before The Fixer. But with the very Scottish Peter Mullan playing a very Southern but otherwise identical ‘tough bastard boss’? Hmm. That does not to me coincidence say.
If only format rights were real, ITV might be having some quiet words with Cinemax right now.
As well as being a relocated Fixer, Quarry also has a lot in common with Cinemax’s own Banshee, beyond simply the involvement of Greg Yaitanes. ‘Quarry’ – as Marshall-Green soon becomes known – is returning to a lost love whose love he might have lost (Jodi Balfour); he’s come back brutalised by his experiences and has to adapt to normal life again; there’s the lure of criminal life and its rewards but the acknowledgement of its costs, particularly in the lives of people we care about as well as of normality; there’s a sexually fluid and amusing fellow criminal (Damon Herriman – last seen as a trans spy in Australia’s Secret City); and practically everyone in the cast is from outside the US (Mullan – British; Balfour – South African; Herriman – Australian; Nikki Amuka-Bird – Nigerian-British).
But the tone’s different – whereas Banshee was pure pulp that both transcended and embraced its trashier qualities, Quarry wants to be something greater, something more noirish, something more philosophical. As well as lapping up its period setting, the mid-70s being a respite from the omnipresent 80s nostalgia we’re currently experiencing, Yaitanes also gives us all the directorial tricks he can throw our way, ranging from flashforwards and dream sequences to odd camera angles and compositions. And both Marshall-Green and that non-American cast list are top-tier acting talent – they’re not here for the shootouts.
While the feature-length first episode was a little too long and a little too exploitative for its own good, Quarry made a good start, clearly setting itself up to be Banshee mark 2, a more refined show that should still appeal to the same audience but which isn’t going to dwell in the realm of the hyper-violent and could draw in more discerning viewers as a result. The producers need to work a little on making the characters more appealing, as pretty much everyone is either too messed up or too criminal for you to want to spend much time with them. But they have the foundations they need in place, plenty of source material to work with (including The Fixer) and a decent story to tell, so I’ll be tuning to see waht they do with it all.
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.
Look at that – Autumn’s here. How did that happen?
Anyway, just as leaves will fall and everyone in the US is now morally obliged to stop wearing white, so TMINE returns to its usual blogging service come Autumn. More or less. Give it a week or so, anyway.
However, although I’m braced and ready for duty, the TV networks are biding their time, deploying some sophisticated form of Sicilian Defence with their schedules, which means there’s not been a lot new for me to review since the previous WHYBW?, other than the somewhat awful Four In The Morning (Canada: CBC) and a whole bunch of Amazon pilots. A few old favourites have returned, though, which means that after the jump, as well as The Last Ship and Mr Robot, I’ll be casting an eye over the first new episodes of the third seasons of Halt and Catch Fire and You’re The Worst, as well as the start of season two of Narcos.
I did manage to look over a couple of new shows, fresh off the presses, though.
En Immersion (Deep) (France: Arte; UK: Netflix)
Stylised French crime drama from Philippe Haïm (Braquo) in which Patrick Ridremont (Dead Man Talking) plays an unambitious cop and single father living in Paris. When he starts to suffer hallucinations, he discovers he is suffering from an incurable fatal neurological disease. With nothing left to lose, Ridremont joins a team of undercover narcotics agents led by Emmanuelle Meyssignac (The Avignon Prophecy), working to bring down Olivier Chantreau (Spiral) and his designer drugs.
As you can probably guess from the fact it was made for France’s arty Arte, En Immerson is more about how the story is told than what the story is, with the series shot in black and white and Haïm at times replacing dialogue with music. Visually, it’s lovely, but unfortunately, it’s also completely uncompelling, not exactly innovative in terms of plotting, and its Braquo-esque ultraviolence is as hard to palate.
The Collection (Amazon)
Set in France just after the Second World War, The Collection sees Richard Coyle (Coupling, Crossbones, Covert Affairs) playing the owner of a fashion house that is going to give France a makeover and once more associate it with fun, haute couture and femininity. Trouble is that the talented one who can design clothes is his f*ck-up brother Tom Riley (Da Vinci’s Demons). How can the ruthless Coyle get little bro with the programme, while preventing the deep, dark, possibly wartime-collaborating family secret from seeing the light of day? Well, it ain’t going to be pretty…
Echoing the latter day production arrangements of Ripper Street, it’s an odd little thing, this, with a whole host of American actors playing moustache-twirling Americans (including Mr Robot/The Newsroom‘s Mamie Gummer), a whole host of Britain’s finest (including James Cosmo, Sarah Parish and Frances De La Tour) playing the French and a soupçon of French actors in teeny tiny unnoticable parts playing god-knows-what, with virtually every exterior shot of post-war Paris apparently shot on the same repeatedly redressed backlot in Grimsby. Coyle is as well cast as when he was a pirate or KGB assassin, and everything has the authenticity of a Hong Kong market knock off.
There’s too little fashion to please fashionistas, too little charm or romance to please the period drama-lovers, too little action to please thriller-lovers and too little attention to detail to please historians. The Collection‘s not awful and is competently made, but there’s no USP, nothing it does that you won’t have seen done better elsewhere, no reason for its existence other than to keep another BBC Worldwide co-production agreement going. Try it if you like, but I doubt it’ll be your size.
But hey guys! This is ‘What have you been watching?’! Note the emphasis on you. Over the weeks and years, some of you have rather benevolently been letting the rest of us know about the good stuff we’ve been missing that I haven’t been picking up on. Just in case you were worried it’s all been falling on deaf ears, you can breathe more easily: in my quest to fill the empty gaps in my viewing schedule, I also looked through your recommendations to find some new shows to try. Here’s what I found.
Neviditelní (The Invisibles) (Czech Republic: CT1; UK: All4)
One of JustStark’s recommendations, this quirky little fantasy drama based very loosely on 1970s movie How to Drown Dr Mrácek is centred on the ‘Nixies’, a bunch of water-breathing people living amongst us – or at least in Prague – but doing their best not to be found out. Then one of their own, albeit someone who doesn’t know he’s a Nixie, goes and publicly commits suicide by drowning. When he promptly fails to die to everyone’s surprise, including his own, a crisis is provoked in the Nixie community.
I haven’t got very far into it yet and the early episodes are less concerned with dynamic storytelling and more with setting up this quaint community, its politics and its rules, from its attempts to attain power through ownership of the water and sewage system through to its attitudes to bleach and its love of fermented frogs. But it’s pleasingly off the wall and amusing, and it’s significantly better once the fallout of the suicide starts, so I’ll stick with it.
No English-language trailers available on YouTube, but you can find out more over on All4, and here’s a Czech one:
Gomorra (Gomorrah) (Italy: Sky Atlantic; UK: Sky Atlantic)
One of GYAD’s recommendations, Gommora is based on the book of the same name by Roberto Saviano. Again, one I’ve not got very far into yet – there are two seasons so far, so give me time – it’s so far been a reasonably and impressively violent but smart look at the Naples mafia, wars between gangs and mafia operations at the street level. It certainly looks fantastic and the differences between UK and Italian societies, such as the greater availability of guns through official channels, take the show in unexpected directions, too. I’m not 100% in love with it yet, but I’ve been seeing it get a lot of love on Twitter, where it’s been described as almost poetic at times and comparisons have been made to The Wire, and what I’ve seen so far has been good enough to make me want to watch more, so I’ll be sticking with it as well.
© 2019 Rob Buckley