It’s “What have you been watching?”, your chance to recommend anything you’ve been watching this week
So much TV, so little time, particularly if you’re stranded in Germany, queuing for three hours to arrange a new flight home and then get a stomach bug on top of a cold. Grrr.
There are also too many boxsets for me to take in: I’m still only on episode 3 of Dark, and I’ve seasons 2 of Professor T, The Crown and Babylon Berlin to hit up, as well as seasons 1 of Godless and She’s Gotta Have It; there’s more due out this week, too, including season 3 of The Tunnel and season 1 of Jean Claude Van Johnson. What should I watch, hey, pop-pickers?
Still, I did manage to watch the first episode of Happy!(US: Syfy), as well as of Knightfall (US: History; UK: History UK), which I’ll discuss after the jump.
Is there a Stephen King formula? Sorry, trick question. King’s obviously a very diverse author, since although he’s best known as a horror writer, he’s turned his hand to everything from The Shawshank Redemption (feelgood prison story) to 11.22.63 (time travelling attempt to live in the sixties to stop Kennedy from being assassinated). Sure, the action’s always almost set in Maine, but that’s really his one definitive defining trait.
Yet one in comes to adaptations, maybe there is a formula, since the adaptations have so often been much of a muchness. If they weren’t, there’d never have been a Darkplace.
Part of the problem is that success breeds imitators who want to latch onto what made the first thing a success and piggyback to the same popularity. CBS’s Under The Dome wasn’t exactly the greatest TV show on Earth – beyond Rachelle Lefevre’s hair – but it was CBS’s surprise summer hit of 2013 and swiftly went from being a limited edition one-off to a full-blown, multiple-season series as a result.
So with Spike once more dipping its toe into the water of scripted content, after its efforts with Blade and The Kill Point made it more or less hide its head in the sand for a decade, it’s perhaps unsurprising that for its glorious return, it’s decided to play it safe and follow both CBS and Hulu in not only adapting a Stephen King story but also following Under The Dome more or less beat for beat, to the extent that The Mist borrows more from Under The Dome in the first episode than it does from The Mist.
We start off in a teeny tiny Maine town full of people with issues that are tediously spelled out for us all up front so that we don’t have to bother trying to do anything too subtly once the action starts. Most of the ‘issues’ revolve around Alyssa Sutherland (Vikings) and her family, especially her gay step-son and her step-daughter who fancies a high school jock, but wakes up after a party suspecting that he’s raped her. Problematically, said jock’s dad is also a police officer.
But there’s also a guy in an army uniform (Romaine Waite) who wakes up on a hillside not remembering much and who comes into town to warn people that there’s something odd in the mist that’s coming towards town. He’s arrested on suspicion of being black and locked up in the jail, where we meet a murderous bad girl (19-2‘s Alexandra Ordolis).
Unfortunately, his warning comes too late, as before you know it, animals are being weird – toads are biting little old ladies and cockroaches are attacking policemen. The mist rolls in, killing anything electric, but woe betide anyone who enters it. Best everyone with the most issues stay locked up together in the shopping mall, hey?
None of this especially subtle stuff. You can see straight from the off what most of the issues are going to be, particularly if you’ve seen Under The Dome. The main difference is that Spike is basic cable, which means it can get away with more swearing and more gore. Once the mist rolls in, suddenly faces are coming off or losing parts, cockroaches are burrowing into flesh, people are being shot in the head. It reads like someone’s idea of what a Stephen King story should be like – it’s horror, isn’t it, so surely there should be nasty unpleasantness.
Even when a little old lady’s husband is shot in the head in front of her by someone driven mad by the mist, the desensitisation process has already began enough that neither the show nor the viewer seems to care. Normally I weep buckets whenever old people are left all alone by the death of their partner, but the scene evoked barely a trace of emotion in me, because The Mist doesn’t really know how to create real people you’d care about.
The Mist is good at gore, but that’s about it. It’s not even a good imitation of Under The Dome, let alone the original Stephen King story. Maybe Spike should have another think about scripted. See you again in 10 years’ time, guys?
In the US: Monday, 10/9c, NBC In the UK: Tuesdays, Amazon
Pierre Morel’s Taken is a classic action thriller. For those who by some miracle haven’t seen it, it features Liam Neeson playing an aging former spy who’s now down on his luck now he’s divorced from his wife Famke Janssen. He also doesn’t get to see his teenage daughter Maggie Grace (Lost) very much. But when Grace goes on a holiday to Paris with one of her friends and is abducted, Neeson puts into practice his ‘very particular set of skills that [he’s] acquired over a very long career’ to find Grace and rescue her.
As I mentioned quite some time ago now, it’s basically the movie that cemented Liam Neeson’s reputation as one of the West’s top action and martial arts stars. It’s not without flaws – certainly the idea that Neeson would go into paroxysms of panic at the thought of his daughter going to Paris as she would be far safer in her home town of Los Angeles is a little bit laughable. But it’s much smarter than you’d think and has some great action sequences. Just don’t watch Taken 2 or Taken 3 since they are not good movies.
Taken obviously has some unique features: Neeson isn’t a spring chicken; he’s a family man but has an estranged wife and daughter; he operates virtually alone, with only a friend or two with equally useful special skills to help him; the film is set in Europe; and Neeson has all manner of dead-drops, contacts and tradecraft to draw on in his challenge.
Strangely, NBC’s Taken uses none of this to try to tell a story that probably didn’t need telling – how Leeson got his special skills. Except it doesn’t even do that.
A prequel series, it stars Clive Standen (Vikings) as the young Liam, now revealed to be an ex-Green Beret who served in Colombia fighting drug cartels. Now back in the US, he’s on a train with his sister when she’s killed during a shootout with some men Standen thinks were after him. He then has to go on the hunt to find the man who sent them and who wants to punish him for some of his past actions.
Although he doesn’t know it, he’s drawn the attention of a covert unit headed by Jennifer Beals (Flashdance, The Chicago Code, Proof) that operates outside the rest of the US intelligence community. Wanting to get to said bad guy, too, she’s happy to use Standen as bait but if he can get there by himself, that’s a win, too.
Guess whom she wants to hire by the end of the episode…
Taken is as much a prequel to the movie as Bates Motel is to Psycho, being resolutely set in modern times rather than the 70s or 80s, right down to ubiquitous iPhones. But at least Bates Motel aspires to set up the events that lead to its parent movie in some way. Here Standen arrives fully formed as an action hero, in little need of building up an already potent skillset that nevertheless seems unlikely even for a Green Beret. There’s the occasional reference to his not being married or having children yet (“Pray you never have a daughter”), but that’s about it.
Neither does it embody any of those unique qualities of the movie. The show’s clearly setting up Standen becoming part of a undercover team to fight drug cartel actions in North America (and possibly South America), so is going to be almost nothing like the movie. Indeed, rather than being a prequel to Taken it’s better to think of the series as NBC’s attempt to do its own version 24, since it has a more or less identical set-up, with Standen basically Jack Bauer in the Kim-less seasons, Beals and co the CTU of the piece.
Standen is at least a decent stand-in for both Sutherland and indeed Neeson – a former international Thai boxer and fencing gold medalist, he was also born in Northern Ireland and actually makes the effort to do a sort of blended American-Northern Irish accent à la Liam. Also among the cast is The Unit‘s Michael Irby, who’s obviously got a good action pedigree to draw on, too.
Although there are plenty of moments during the pilot where you find yourself asking “Why doesn’t he just…?” or “Why did he do that, FFS?”, Taken also does at least have some surprisingly good action scenes (unlike Taken 2 and Taken 3) and from time to time, actually does something surprising, different or unusual from the usual beats and twists of action TV plotting.
Nevertheles, Taken is largely still a generic series that offers little to really differentiate it from any other semi-ensemble action TV show. It could be worth watching if later episodes take the show in new or unusual directions or make it more similar to the movie, but at the moment, Taken is Taken in name-only.