In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, Syfy
In the UK: Not yet acquired
As you’ll see tomorrow when I review Showtime’s Black Monday, we are apparently entering a new phase of 80s nostalgia. We’ve already numerous 80s TV shows lapping up the nostalgia value of video games, sport, fashion, hairstyles, high schools, music, film, politics et al of the era (eg Dark, Stranger Things, Halt and Catch Fire, GLOW, The Americans, Deutschland 83). But while The Americans and Dark weren’t exactly a bundle of laughs, they were pretty pro the 80s or at least neutral. Which is odd, because the 80s didn’t exactly feel brilliant when we were living through them.
There’s a big wonderful decade out there for you to explore. The 80s was more than neon lights, a synth soundtrack, and basement D&D. “Just Say Yes” to the unsanitized 80s.
But does it really know how? Or even what the 80s was really like?
The In Crowd v The Nerds
It stars Benjamin Wadsworth as a homeless street criminal who really hates Reagan, mainly because the Gipper has shut down plenty of hospitals for the mentally ill, resulting in all manner of schizophrenics and the like killing themselves or dying.
I’m not sure why he’s hanging his hate hat on that particular hook so vehemently, but he is.
Then into his life come the pupils of King’s Dominion, a High School for kids run by Benedict Wong (Marco Polo, The Martian, Doctor Strange). King’s Dominion has one central feature of its teaching curriculum: it teaches poor kids to kill. Why? Because Wong’s peasant-descended family has tried to ensure the poor should never be in a position where the rich can run a tyranny over them.
Soon, Wadsworth is having to do a Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You: he’s learning who the in crowd and the out crowd are, what cliques to join and avoid, so he can become a pupil at King’s Dominion. But he has one big motivation to do it – he wants to assassinate Ronald Reagan.
When is a remake not a remake? You could argue that History’s Project Blue Book isn’t a direct remake of Project UFO for sure, given that both are supposedly based on something else – real-life reports from the USAF’s Project Blue Book investigations of unidentified flying objects. However, they’re really so similar, I can’t help but feel that Project Blue Bookshould be described as a remake, even if it’s nowhere near as frightening or as interesting.
Project UFO was a scary thing. At least, I thought so watching at the time and even watching the title sequence now gives me the heebie-jeebies.
They spend 90% of the episode proving that there was a perfectly rational explanation for everything
They go away
The final five minutes reveals it was aliens all along!
And Project Blue Book isn’t that different, even if the whole thing now has a big dollop of post-X-Files conspiracy theory bolted on top.
As it’s the History Channel and although that’s a title that increasingly should be said with air quotes round it, there is a germ of real history to Project Blue Book. It sees Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones, The Wire, Queer as Folk) playing real-life university astronomer J Allen Hynek. He’s recruited by the USAF to investigate the spate of sightings of unidentified flying objects that Americans around the country have been reporting. The USAF wants him to debunk them as it’s not very helpful to have mass hysteria during the Cold War. To help him – or maybe vice versa – he’s accompanied by Michael Malarkey (The Vampire Diaries), a (not real-life) air force captain who’s been investigating UFOs by himself for some time.
Both are sceptical from the outset and prove a formidable investigatory team. Malarkey is able to use his flying and air force experience to debunk some aspects of stories and get some people to talk, while Gillen’s scientific expertise enables him to sort the ridiculous from the plausible and get others to talk.
The first episode sees the two of them investigating a (supposedly) real Project Blue Book sighting, in which a pilot collided with a ‘green orb’ but which Malarkey and Gillen reckon could well be a weather balloon. But some things don’t quite add up…
The scientific investigation of UFOs is strangely enough the show’s strongest quality. It really is interesting to see the two of them use science and expertise to investigate stories and discover the truth, with both actors providing strong counterpoints to one another.
But, unfortunately, lingering behind the scenes is the shadow of The X-Files. Despite this being ‘the History Channel’, all of the very real Project Blue Book turns out to be a cover-up run by Neal McDonough (Arrow, DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, The Burning Zone, Star Trek: First Contact, Captain America) to stop people finding out the truth about the real aliens, particularly those from Roswell. Gillen and Malarkey are just patsies being used to provide a veneer of plausibility to the project.
The USAF should probably sue for libel. Certainly, it’s what ruins Project Blue Book for me. The show was already playing fast and loose with history at this point: Hynek may eventually become a believer and even invent the ‘Close Encounters’ grading system in real-life, but for the first few years of the project, he was a committed sceptic, not the easy convert the first episode suggests.
Similarly, for a conspiracy, it ain’t half clumsy. McDonough might as well be shouting at Malarkey ‘There are real aliens so stop investigating too hard or you’ll find them’ for all the subtlety the writers allow him to show and there’s only so many times that a shadowy man in a hat can follow Gillen before you wonder why he doesn’t realise someone high up has it in for him.
Unlike Project UFO, there is an attempt to give the two investigators in Project Blue Book something of a life outside of investigating aliens. However, much of it feels like just extended efforts to keep the paranoia going through other plot lines.
Laura Mennell (Alphas, Haven, Loudermilk, The Man in the High Castle,Watchmen) has a thankless role as Gillen’s wife and so far most of her storyline has focused on going dress shopping with the potentially dangerous, potentially gay Ksenia Solo (Lost Girl), who might be trying to use her to find out more about her husband.
Otherwise, though, it’s 50% conspiracy nonsense, 50% moderately interesting adaptations of real Blue Book investigations. If we turn off a) and focus on b), the show will get a lot better, as it has a fine cast, good period detail and a decent budget for recreating ‘sightings’. Having been a bit of UFO buff as a kid, it was also thrilling to see all the famous photographs I had in my scary UFO book, too, so more of that, please.
If not, YouTube has pretty much all of Project UFO on it, so I might just give that a rewatch instead. ‘Ezekiel saw the wheel…’
As I pointed out when I reviewed New Zealand’s Wellington Paranormal last year, some shows are aimed at a worldwide market, while some are aimed at only the local market. In days of yore, the latter group would probably never escape their home countries, since what foreign buyer in their right mind would pick up a show that contained references only the locals would understand/find amusing?
But thanks to Netflix and its compatriots, these days, sooner or later, pretty much every show ends up being available worldwide, no matter how impenetrable it might be to outsiders.
As a result, the year is probably 2025 and you’re only just reading this review to see what Netflix’s new Canadian ‘Original’, Cavendish, is like, given no one probably acquired it until now. Or maybe you don’t understand it because it’s so Canadian.
Whatever the case, you’re probably laughing because it is surprisingly funny, even to non-Canadians and those who haven’t read Anne of Green Gables.
Cavendish is a sort of love letter to coastal resorts such as… Cavendish, PEI. That’s the province of Prince Edward Island, non-Canadians, which is where Anne of Green Gables was set. Think Margate or Blackpool if you haven’t read it. Or maybe something even weirder and local. In fact, it’s getting on for The League of Gentlemen‘s idea of local at times.
It sees Mark Little (MrD, Gary and His Demons) and Andrew Bush (Picnicface) playing two brothers returning to Cavendish more than 20 years after their mother left their father and took them away to Toronto. Daddy’s sick and despite never having spoken to them in the intervening years, the two brothers decide it best to go and see him.
The first oddity to notice here is that daddy is played by The Actor Kevin Eldon.
There’s no explanation for why their dad is English. Or why Eldon is playing him like a cross between Father Jack in Father Ted and Norman Wisdom. Just accept it.
The oddities continue. Together with his new partner and her daughter, Dad runs a Museum of Curiosities that contains a stuffed wrestling bear, a foetus in a jar, a sarcophagus and many other pieces of strangeness. Typical stuff for tourists, basically. That’s not the oddity, though.
The oddity is the whole town. Cavendish is odd. The brothers arrive on ‘Beast day’, which is the day that everyone stays indoors to avoid being abducted by the Beast (it has the top half of a wolf and the bottom half of a wolf and might be a wolf, but isn’t). They say a special prayer at dinner to avoid being snatched away by the Beast. People even have Beast dreams that predict the future and which the cops trust as evidence. The town flag even includes the Beast.
And that’s just the first episode. In later episodes, there’s an Anne of Green Gables cult. There’s an actual witches coven. Or maybe two. There are possessed ancient statues.
Again, though, this is more League of Gentlemen stuff than Eerie Indiana or The X-Files. It’s a comedy, just one set in a place that the stars/writers found weird enough to mock.
For the most part, though, the jokes aren’t about the truly weird. They’re Canadians sending themselves up. There are jokes about rural Canadians with impenetrable accents and small-town life. Jokes about hunters. Jokes about mayors. No one’s immune. There may even be more jokes than that, but I’m not Canadian enough to have spotted them.
Fortunately, it’s the family interplay that really makes the show work. There’s the constant bickering between the two brothers, jokes about the baldness of one, and jokes about how no one remembers him. The daughter who runs the museum is hilariously acerbic, too. This works internationally for sure.
It’s just a shame no one outside Canada will get to see it until 2025, though. There might even be more than one promo video accessible outside Canada by then, too.
In Canada: Mondays, 9PM/9:30NT, CBC
In the UK: Mondays, 9pm, Universal. Starts January 21
By rights, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) should be the Canadian equivalent of our BBC. It does, after all, have a similar remit from its government. But without a licence fee, it has instead decided to become ITV, as far as I can see. Look at the vast bulk of its original programming and once you’ve pushed all the ITV-esque reality shows and competition shows out of your way, you’ll see:
Period crime dramas
And most of those are female-led, too. Basically ITV.
Now we have CBC’s latest female-led crime drama, Coroner, based on the series of books by MR Hall, and if only it weren’t airing on Universal here, it would be a shoo-in for ITV.
Coroner Jenny Cooper
Serinda Swan (Breakout Kings, Tron: Legacy, Marvel’s Inhumans) plays former ER doctor Jenny Cooper, who decides after her husband dies that being a coroner is a better job option. As you do. Immediately heading up the entire department for some reason, she finds sloppy work and crotchety old men judging – yes, judging, I tell you – the deceased and so not doing proper autopsies. She decides to champion them, not only by doing great work, but solving all the murders in town instead of the police. Clearly, she’s been watching too much CSI.
Fortunately, to help her in her entirely off-job-description work, Canada’s “Roger Cross Full Employment Act” has ensured that detective Roger Cross (24, Continuum, Arrow, Dark Matter, The Strain, Motive, The Returned) is on hand and can offer some friendship/sexual frisson, too. In that latter role, he has a rival in the shape of hunky, former soldier, working class, French-Canadian Éric Bruneau (Tu m’aimes-tu?, Prémonitions, Mensonges), who seems to have nothing better to do all day than to do odd, heavy-lifting jobs for dead old women who can’t pay him and to smoulder.
Old and new
As you may have gathered from that, there’s nothing that new in the rundown for that and if it weren’t for its Canadian locale, I could have repeated that description and you’d have thought this was an adaptation of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta books. Indeed, there’s lots about Coroner that’s predictable.
Rather than the doting type, Swan’s husband was naturally a gambler who double-mortgaged the house, leaving Swan and son (Ehren Kassam) in dire financial straits, so that the audience can root for the underdog single mum. Crotchety old white men are only there so they can be fired by Swan to show how kick ass she is and so she can diversity-promote the hideously underqualified young black coroner (Slasher‘s Lovell Adams-Gray) she’s just met, without consideration of the staff’s workload with her off doing one autopsy a week at best.
Cross and the rest of the police naturally come round to appreciating how kick ass Swan is, too, and actively help her in doing their jobs for them. And Bruneau could have wandered in from any Nicholas Sparks book you came to mention, in between all his moody glowering and thinking about his dark past killing people as a soldier.
However, this is Canada and Coroner is consequently a bit quirkier and nicer than its US counterpart would have been – it’s nowhere near nudging Harrow‘s level of quirkiness but it does know how to crack jokes at least. The fact it’s based on some books means there’s a heightened level of dialogue compared to the average procedural, and there are amusing characters, too. Plus being Canada, even the bad guys give up without a fight or a curse word.
As with Motive, the plot is all about layered appreciation of victims and criminals. Episode one sees two kids seemingly kill themselves in a correctional facility in a recreation of Romeo and Juliet‘s suicide pact. As you might expect, there’s more to it than that and it’s definitely murder, so the kids are blameless. But along the way, we discover just how nice and smart young offenders are, even ones arrested for gang offences. All you need to do is let them perform a bit of Shakespeare and they’re sorted.
Éric Bruneau in Coroner
If you’re a fan of the genre, then Coroner is decent enough. Swan isn’t the most versatile or charismatic of actresses, but at least she’s better and has more fire than Frankie Drake‘s Lauren Lee Smith. The rest of the cast either do their given plot roles sufficiently well or inject some welcome humour into things. And the story of the first episode, at least, has a few twists and turns you might not be expecting.
Otherwise, this is interchangeable female-led procedural fare that won’t convert anyone to the genre.
Deadly Class (US: Syfy) – adaptation of the graphic novel that sees Benedict Wong teach kids how to kill in the 80s
Black Monday (US: Showtime; UK: Sky Atlantic – probably) – Don Cheadle in a scathing satire of Wall Street in the 80s
And anything else that pops up, such as ABC (US)’s Schooled, which starts tonight (although that’s a spin-off from The Goldbergs so maybe not). Sex Education is on Netflix from Friday, so I might boxset it.
That’s a pretty full schedule, though, and as Deadly Class and Black Monday don’t air in the US for a couple of weeks, I might postpone them until nearer the time.
After the jump, it’ll be just the usual regulars, as well as what I watched over Christmas: three full episodes of Counterpart, the remaining four episodes of Plan Cœur (The Hookup Plan), the penultimate episode of Happy Together and the season finale of Titans, as well as 2018’s A Ghost Story For Christmas. See you in a mo…