Sex Education: can we have some more?

Netflix are sneaky scamps, forever banging out shows and with some hit and some miss it makes it hard to keep up and know what to watch. But when Sex Education popped up out of nowhere I immediately heard good things, so thought I’d give it a go. And I’m glad I did, it’s fantastic.

Set in South Wales it’s all beautiful green valleys and rolling hills bathed in late summer sunshine. The whole place looks gorgeous.

The story itself centres on Otis (Asa Butterfield), the son of sex therapist Jean (Gillian Anderson). He strikes up a business arrangement of sorts with super smart school rebel Maeve (Emma Mackay). She learns he’s picked up therapy skills from his mum which could be put to good use, so she proposes they set up a sex advice clinic for kids at school. Maeve gets to make a bit of money and awkward Otis, smitten by Maeve, gets to hang out with one of the coolest girls at school.

So they start sourcing ‘clients’ and Otis instantly finds he’s in over his head, advising students on their sex lives when he himself has his own issues and is hardly worldly wise in the complex matters of sex and relationships. And yet, he does have a natural ability to get people to open up and discuss their feelings. He also wants to get to know Maeve better, so he sticks with it.

Setup aside, this show is a funny beast, in that it’s an odd hybrid of USA and UK.

The kids have lockers, they go to prom, they’ve got a school logo that is textbook American, yet the cast act and speak, for the most part, like they’re modern British teenagers.

I say modern because, in another oddity, they all dress as though they’re in some fantastical version of the ’80s. It’s beyond hipster – far too cool than they have any right to be.

Apparently the show’s writer, Laurie Nunn, said this was a tribute to the John Hughes’ films of the ’80s, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. And also influenced by Grange Hill, but more a more aspirational version.

One of the things I really liked about this show – as did many others – was the way they seemingly, effortlessly, tackled a number of issues that teens deal with: sexuality and sexual identity, bullying, performance anxiety, repressed traumas etc. Which sounds heavy going, but it’s done, for the most part, with levity and a good whack of humour.

And speaking of characters, it’s not just the leads that we get to know well.

Most of the supporting characters get, er, character, but not in the way you might expect. Starting out as archetypes – jock, bully, mean girl – most of them get subverted in some way. So, without spoiling anything, suffice to say that like most teenagers, and grown ups, there’s a lot more to a person than what they show most of us on the surface.

The show does this brilliantly, often just using a small scene to add depth to a host of characters. Not only does this engage us a lot more deeply, but it also treats us an audience with intelligence. It’s 2019, we don’t need to be seeing the same old kinds of characters played out time and again.

So, oddly, it’s actually a very refreshing show. Feel-good and heart-warming, all those words. Before you know it you’ll have gobbled up all eight episodes and, much like a sexually repressed teenager, you’ll be surprised that all the sexy stuff was over quite so quickly.

Let’s hope they don’t take too long to give us a season two.

My top TV shows of 2018

Most TV I watched last year were actually shows that had come out a few years back. Basically I’ve been catching up. So for this list I just wanted to review new shows or new seasons out in 2018.

Here were my favourites.

Killing Eve

The story goes: MI5 Desk analyst Eve (Sandra Oh) gets tangled up in the hunt for a psychopathic assassin called Villanelle (Jodie Comer) in an unexpected and delicious manner. Now this show came somewhat out of nowhere accompanied with much hype, and rightly so as it’s fantastic. The writing was nuanced and inventive, but it lived or died with the performances of the two leads, Oh and Comer. The dynamic between their characters made for some of the show’s best moments. Comer in particular, astounded me – beautiful, precocious, deadly. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Daredevil season 3

They say you should always go out on a high and, boy, did this show do so (Disney have since cancelled it, damn them). In this final season our hero Matt Murdoch aka Daredevil (Charlie Cox) finds he’s got both the rising power of Wilson Fisk aka Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) to deal with, as well as the highly unstable FBI agent Ben Poindexter aka Bullseye (Wilson Bethel). All whilst he’s been stripped of his suit and is wanted by the police. So we go back to basics. After a slightly unsatisfying season two and the underwhelming first (and only) season of the Defenders, this final chapter on the devil of Hell’s Kitchen feels like a welcome return to form, anchored by strong performances from Cox, D’Onofrio and Bethel.

The Deuce season 2

The first season of this show put the lives of pimps, escorts, bar men and the mafia in New York’s ‘deuce’ area in the late ‘70s under the microscope. It was created by the guy behind The Wire, David Simon, and it’s a show very much in that mould, following a host of characters as their lives intertwine and intersect. With season 2 they move the timeline on five years to the point where some of the characters have moved beyond street walking to become porn actresses and, in the case of Candy (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a bona-fide porn director. The other character you could call a lead of the show, Vince (James Franco), now owns a nightclub, bar and massage parlour, although he’s beholden to the mob and conflicted about his line of work. As with any of Simon’s shows the way he juggles character and story is masterful, the worlds he builds feel real and the characters flawed and human. Audiences agreed and the show will be back for a third and final season.

Westworld season 2

Westworld season 1 showed us a world where a theme park exists populated by AI ‘hosts’ that are indistinguishable from people. It was like the Wild West, and rich humans could go there and live out fantasies killing the hosts and soforth. The conflict arose when the hosts began to retain memories each time they were brought back to life. Then they began to rebel. Season 1 played out across multiple timelines with multiple characters, some host some human. Season 2 continued this, but upped the ante, adding more timelines, flash backs, forwards, sideways, timelines within timelines, worlds within worlds. Imagine the films Inception and Momento had a baby and got drunk and you’re halfway there. Thoroughly confusing but still utterly compelling to the point where you begin to think that any moment they’ll lift the curtain and it’ll all make sense. But it doesn’t, and by the end you don’t much care, as the journey was such a blast.

Altered Carbon

Based on a 2002 novel, this was another of Netflix’s forays into sci-fi; which may have left some of us viewers nervous, as they’re a bit hit and miss in this genre. This show, thankfully, was fantastic. Taking place in a cyberpunk future where a person’s personality/mind etc can be loaded into a ‘stack’ implanted at the base of the neck, effectively meaning they can switch bodies and live forever, or at least the rich can. We start with Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman), a sort of mercenary investigator, resurrected from ‘death’ and called in to investigate the actual (yet not successful) murder of one of the wealthiest men in the universe, 300-year-old Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy). There’s sex, violence, cool tech, Kinnamon scowling, Kinnamon’s abs, what’s not to like? Also, for the second season, Anthony Mackie will be in the lead role.

Billions season 3

US Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) versus hedge fund billionare Bobby Axelrod (Damien Lewis). That’s sort of all you really need to know about this show. Chuck goes after Bobby, gets him tangled up in various legal issues. Bobby fights back, he schemes, he works the market as best he can. Season 2 was interesting in that Chuck and Bobby found their paths diverge somewhat, with Chuck moving more into politics and Bobby trying to avoid jail time and losing his company. The show did find some inventive ways to bring them together at times, getting perilously close to tipping over into ridiculous melodrama. That said, both Giamatti and Lewis are phenomenal actors and any opportunity to watch them face off is a delight.

Sense8 finale: just what we needed

Sense 8 was a show that was cruelly cut down before its time. But, thanks to a fan campaign, came back to life for a finale recently, courtesy of Netflix. And, happily, the result was a delight. Generally, in film or TV, kowtowing to fans has rarely ever given us audiences good results but, for once, in this instance, a bit of boxticking to give the show’s characters a good send-off was exactly what was needed.

The premise (and frankly, if you need this explaining you shouldn’t be watching the finale first) is that eight people across the globe come to learn that they’re psychically connected. They can communicate with one another and think and feel feelings of the others in the group, their ‘cluster’. And whilst they’re still independent people with their own agency, they’re far beyond what you or I would experience in terms of connection (physical and mental).

Which all sounds a bit, well, superhero. And perhaps in other hands this would be the case, but Sense8 is a show that’s simultaneously more cerebral yet also more grounded.

At its core, it’s about connection, acceptance, love (in many forms) and freedom of self-expression. Which we get to experience, ultimately, through the interactions the cluster have with one another.

Because, like all good shows, it has great characters that you come to love over time, and, handily, there are eight from which to choose your favourites. There’s Riley (Tuppence Middleton) an Icelandic DJ living in London; Nomi (Jamie Clayton) a hacktivist in San Francisco; Wolfgang (Max Riemelt) a safe-cracker in Berlin; Will (Brian J. Smith) a cop in Chicago; Capheus (Toby Unwumere) a bus driver in Nairobi;), Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre) an actor in Mexico City; Sun (Doona Bae) the daughter of a businessman and an underground kickboxer in Seoul; and Kala (Tina Desai) a pharmacist in Mumbai.

Naturally, though, you have to have an overall antagonist for the eight of them to face off against. In this case it comes pre-packaged in the form of an evil organisation called BPO, who are hunting them down for experiments or something.

Basically, this part of the show doesn’t hugely matter, the thing the fans come back for, and indeed protested about when the show suddenly ended, was that they wanted to see more of the eight main characters interacting together. More interesting and inventive things they could do with their powers, more love, more sex, more of Wolfgang and Sun kicking ass, more polyamorous connections, more slow-mo shots of the whole annoyingly attractive lot of them dancing to Euro trance.

Which the show’s creator, Lana Wachowski (her sister Lily was also involved, but stepped away from the show after season one) was only too happy to give us. Yet, she understood that it couldn’t all be orgies and explosions, so she balanced it out.

We had humour, some lovely character moments and scenes (a wedding at the Eiffel Tower complete with bearded fairies for example!) and a sense of finality and closure.

And to be honest, you couldn’t really ask for more for the ending of a show that you love. Now if only Serenity could do the same thing…

Top ass-kicking actresses on TV that I like lately

Lately, I’ve started to become dimly aware of something. A lot of TV shows I’m currently watching seem to have not only a decent gender balance in general, but also well-written female characters in leading roles. Perhaps this has been the case for a long time, but, somehow, I’ve just noticed it. Maybe these characters have always been present, but perhaps in the past just to serve the journey of the male characters? Sort of mild fridging, or pre-death fridging perhaps? But now, in the golden age of streaming TV with Netflix and Amazon Prime, and in the age of #metoo and #timesup, female characters seem to have more agency. Are we at some sort of turning point? I asked this in a recent post about action women in film, and I think the same applies to TV.

It’s kind of a refreshing and exciting place we find ourselves in, from a storytelling point of view. At the very least, as recipients of said stories.

So with that in mind, below are a selection of characters that have entered my TV watching world in various guises, from women that plot and scheme, through to those that straight up fight, to those that code and those that build. TV people take note, more of these characters please. Modern storyelling needs them, now more than ever.

Thandie Newton
As Maeve in Westworld

As one of the AI ‘hosts’ of Westworld, Maeve starts out as a madam in a brothel, but quickly becomes one of the show’s key characters, breaking her programming and fighting back against her creators. She evolves to the point where she controls other hosts and has them do her bidding in a mission to rescue her daughter.

Hannah New
As Eleanor Guthrie in Black Sails

Eleanor, following in the footsteps of her father, runs a black market operation out of Nassau, dealing with cut-throat pirates day in day out. And, in an environment where the only other female characters of note are prostitutes, she cuts her own path as a canny businesswoman, striking unsavoury deals with dangerous pirates to keep her enterprise going.

Kathryn Winnick
As Lagertha in Vikings

Married to a farmer with big ambition and King-in-waiting, Ragnar Lodbrok, Lagertha starts the show as a shield maiden, but makes her dismay clear when Ragnor leaves her behind during his first raids on England. She’s firmly part of the team on the next raid and remains a key figure throughout the show, growing in power to become the Earl of a nearby area, as well as a key figure in the viking raids on Paris. Whilst she’s a fierce warrior on the outside, she’s really an emotionally complex and thoroughly interesting character. Her fractious relationship with Ragnor is one of the most compelling and watchable things in the show.

Lindsey Morgan
As Raven Reyes in The 100

As the youngest zero-G mechanic to come through the ranks of humanity’s last survivors in space, Raven is clearly smart as hell, highly capable and about as tenacious as you can get. Not only does she launches herself in a tiny rocket to get to Earth, she builds homemade bombs to fight the ‘grounders’, and bests a homicidal AI through a combination of frantic coding, no sleep and a lot of coffee. And she does most of this after being shot in the spine and having to relearn how to walk.

Mackenzie Davis
As Cameron Howe in Halt and Catch Fire

Cameron enters the show early, being recruited by Lee Pace’s stuffed shirt ex-IBM sales guy to build a PC that’ll blow the big boys out the water. She acts as a good foil to the show’s buttoned-up, tightly wound male characters, in that she dresses like a geek, listens to punk rock and heavy metal whilst coding and does things very much her own way, to the chagrin of the men.

Maggie Siff
As Wendy Rhoades in Billions

Maggie is a psychiatrist tasked with ensuring the traders of Bobby Axelrod’s (Damien Lewis) hedge fund remain ruthless and committed when it comes to their work. She’s equally close to Bobby as well as his arch nemesis, Chuck, the District Attorney hellbent on destroying him – who also happens to be her husband. Oh, and on the side she’s a Dominatrix in the bedroom, giving Chuck a spanking when he gets out of line.

The Gifted: season one review

So mutants have moved to the small screen these days, with The Gifted, starring Stephen Moyer (of True Blood fame) – and it’s set in a world which runs on an alternate mutant timeline to the big screen films (although those are all over the place these days), and it’s one where the main X-Men have disappeared and have seemingly left John Proudstar/Thunderbird (Blair Retford) in charge of what’s known as the mutant underground. Although he’s not the show’s primary character.

We first meet the underground when Reed Strucker (Stephen Moyer), a district attorney who prosecutes mutants, is forced to go on the run with his family after learning his kids, Lauren (Natalie Alyn Lind) and Andy (Percy Hynes White), are, shock horror, mutants themselves. The sweet, sweet irony. This setup means the Strucker family are our way in as an audience.

And so we have a cat and mouse game of back and forth between the evil government agency, Sentinel Services (S.S., see what they did there), and the sweet little Struckers and their mutant friends, forced to live in hiding.

Not that hiding seems that bad. The underground has food, water and an array of hi-tech computers to aid tracking of the enemy. There’s a lot of mutants there too, with most of them pleasingly attractive, which is important if we’re going to stay interested in their plight.

First, we’ve got hunky Johnny/Thunderbird, part Apache with tracking abilities and super pecs, sorry, strength; then Lorna Dane/Polaris (Emma Dumont), a pale, sexy goth type with green hair who’s also the daughter of Magneto, so she can manipulate metal; her partner Marcos Diaz/Eclipse (Sean Teale), a tall, dark and brooding dude with links to the Mexican cartel, so he’s a bit of a bad boy, oh, and he can manipulate photons to shoot hot beams from his hands; and there’s Clarice Gong/Blink (Jamie Chung), a sexy teleporter with a bit of a thing for Johnny; plus Johnny’s actual ex-girlfriend, Sonya Simonson/Dreamer (Elena Satine), a sultry lady who’s all lips and boobs and blows seductive pink smoke at you to manipulate memories. What a temptress.

There’s also a bunch of other lesser characters we don’t really get to know that well, so I won’t spend a lot of time on them.

So with each of these main lot they all seem to have their own personal soap opera going on, and some are more compelling than others. I guess the show’s creators wanted an ensemble cast so they didn’t have all eggs in one basket. Because it’s probably a bit of a burden being the lead in a new X-Men property, even if it is TV.

And thinking on it, I wonder how much the reputation of the films loom over this show.

So much so that the show’s creators aren’t taking massive risks, from what I’ve seen so far. By this I mean, it’s a show that has a lot of action, an abundance of characters, and plenty going on, but at the same time nothing of much significance actually happens. Which is a skill in the writing in itself, but in this golden age of TV one cannot simply amble along for the majority of a season without getting to the sodding point.

Where is this story going exactly?
Is anything bad actually going to happen?
Will I care it if it does?
Are any of these sexy people going to hook up with each other?
Can we see some nudity? (If only relevant to the plot of course.)

Clearly the questions that plague me are the same ones I’m sure you’re asking yourself. Or perhaps you’re not. Perhaps I shouldn’t be? Maybe this is more aimed at young teens, I don’t know.

Maybe you’ll be asking yourself, why am I watching it if I’m not that engaged?
Probably because I’m engaged just enough, and I’m praying more happens. But it’s also one of those shows that, from probably the second episode, I filed under ‘easy watch’. Like when you’re tired and home from work and don’t want anything too taxing that you have to focus on a great deal.

So that’s that really. A solid, dependable 6/10 for entertainment, story and character. If that’s your thing, then get watching. If not, and you’re after geeky TV that has something more to give, try Agents of SHIELD or Jessica Jones.

Godless: good, but could’ve been great

Godless is one of the latest shows to be released by Netflix. A Western that got shopped around Hollywood as a feature film but didn’t get picked up, so writer-director Scott Frank (who penned Logan) ended up finding a home for it on the small screen, and the story went from two hours to a solid seven.

Now this could have been a writer’s dream. Think about it, you’ve got a compelling idea for a story and get to write more scenes, develop characters, flesh the whole thing out and give it room to breathe. And Frank does this well, and thus does a decent job for the most part, but more on that to come.

Story wise, the plot focuses on sharp shooting outlaw Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) who splits from a gang run by Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and, in doing so, nicks the cash from their latest heist. So they go after him.

He finds refuge at the home of tough rancher Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), who lives on the outskirts of a town called La Belle; which is populated entirely by women, due to a mining accident that wiped out most of the men. And Roy gets tentatively welcomed into her home, bit by bit, coaching Alice’s son on horses, fixing things, exchanging longing looks with her, the usual unfulfilled lusting you get in these types of stories.

So from fleeing his surrogate – and criminal – family, he finds some semblance of a real one, by chance. Meanwhile, Frank Griffin wanders the territory looking for him and generally being a very bad man to anyone that gets in his way.

Basically, the problem at the core of this show is that a town populated – and run by – women, in a Western, is a compelling concept. It feels fresh and timely, particularly in today’s ‘grab ’em by the pussy’, Trump-infused world, where not a day goes by without some public figure being outed for sexual harassment or worse – and this is something Netflix took a punt on with their marketing.

Trouble is, the women of La Belle feel less well written than the men, as the show’s more interested in Roy’s redemption and Frank’s downward spiral; than the idea of women surviving and thriving in a world that’s utterly dominated by macho blokes.

To back this up*, there’s also too much focus on other male characters that aren’t vital to the story. For starters, we’ve got the town’s almost blind Sheriff (Scoot McNairy) who’s therefore a bit of a damp squib as a lawman. He goes after Frank, presumably to satisfy his wounded masculinity.

Then there’s the Marshall of the territory (Sam Waterston) also after Frank. He has full vision but is perhaps even more useless than the Sheriff. Why these two didn’t work together was beyond me. Although they felt like filler characters, in that you could lose the Marshall and the show would be no worse off. Possibly the Sheriff too.

(*Incidentally, Wikipedia lists nine major characters and six are men.)

I suppose I wouldn’t be bothered about the misleading marketing if the show was average, but it ain’t. It’s really rather good. For one thing, it’s achingly, exquisitely shot (seldom have I seen Western landscapes look so beautiful) and the characters are all, by and large, pretty engaging, in that I wanted to learn more about them and their lives and interactions with each other.

It’s just there are too many to introduce in seven hours and none get enough time to develop, particularly the show’s women, with maybe the exception of Alice and the town’s leader Mary Agnes (Merritt Wever), who’s actually one of the most complex and intriguing characters.

Plus she’s the only one who really holds her own with the men and is determined the town’s women have agency and are in charge of their own fate. The other women, rather disappointly, are just happy for some men around the place, whatever it costs them.

So the word is, this show is limited to just the single season, which is a shame considering all the world building it had done. And I feel it’s a slim pickin’ chance we’ll see it for a second go round, as it looks like a show that had a hefty budget.

I hope it does come back and focuses on La Belle and its women and perhaps the fight to save their mine. But this is all wishful thinking and we’ll have to more than likely just enjoy it for what it was, rather than what it could become. And this is no bad thing, I was just hoping for a little bit more.

Mindhunter: season one review

This show, about how the FBI came to profile and understand serial killers, has been on David Fincher’s radar for quite some time in various guises and, such is the way these days, has languished a bit in development hell until Netflix picked it up. Which is actually the perfect place for it. 

Now for anyone thinking that, with Fincher attached, this would be the TV version of Seven, will be mistaken. It’s not that glamorous. There’s no car chases or big dramatic moments, particularly. There’s also no gory murder scenes. In actual fact its focus is elsewhere and it’s a slow burn, methodical and almost introspective character study of what makes psychopaths tick. And, as a result, it’s fascinating. Think of all the one on one scenes in Silence of the Lambs where Clarice is trying to understand Lecter and he’s toying with her and you’re halfway there. 

Mindhunter starts with young FBI guy, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), a hostage negotiator who moves from field work to teach guys coming through the academy about the techniques he’s learned. The FBI’s director then partners him with a guy from the behavioural science division, Bill Tench (Holt McCallany); who’s out on the road teaching beat cops round the country about the psychology of criminals and why local law enforcement needs to think differently. And they slowly bond, in a mismatched odd couple kind of way.

Now for you and me, it may seem obvious that, for some criminals, you have to get inside their head in order to understand – and therefore catch – them, but back then it was a new concept. Particularly for serial killers, who could go for years undetected. Seemingly normal guys (and it is mostly guys) living life like anyone else, yet under the surface they’ve constructed another type of persona, one that satisfies their desire to kill without remorse.

It’s this dichotomy that fascinates Ford, who actively tries to interview some of the most notorious killers in America at the time in an effort to understand and profile them. He almost admires and reveres them.

Tench, reluctantly, goes along with Ford’s schemes, but it’s clear he has contempt for these killers and what they’ve done and thinks there’s a lot less to learn from them than Ford. Yet something in him is drawn to them as well, although he’s more wary than Ford about what real insight can be gained.

And these interviews (taken from real life exchanges with real convicts) are what form some of this show’s best scenes. Moreover, real killers are used as characters in the show for authenticity: guys like Ed Kemper, Jerry Brudos and Richard Speck. And whilst they’re all different personalities and have killed for a variety of reasons, there are things the FBI learns from each of them in their efforts to form a methodology from which to assess and profile would-be future killers. 

This is something the show touches on in one scene, where Holden uses what he’s learnt to prevent a crime. He’s then reprimanded, because, as his director says, you cannot punish someone for something they haven’t yet done. 

But he’s onto something. We know he is. Each time Ford gets resistance from those he reports to he knows he should trust his instinct and keep going. Yet he, too, becomes more detached the more he comes to understand – and possibly even empathise with – these guys. Is Ford a borderline sociopath? Is it a job requirement in order to get close to these men and gain their confidence? It’s evident that this show deals in a lot of grey areas, and you’ll find yourself thinking about its themes for days after.

And Groff plays him so compellingly, with a kind of wholesome, precocious innocence, yet he’s also incredibly driven, single-minded, considered, focused and strategic. And he’s in close to every scene throughout the season. Who knew a guy best known for musicals and Frozen could be such a good fit for this type of character? 

My perhaps only niggle is that this first season doesn’t feel like it has an obvious overall arc. I mean, it does build to a climax of sorts, but it’s not a show that’s overly dramatic, so it sort of feels counter-intuitive to have a grandstanding finale. That said, it’s nice to see a narrative thread running through overall, if you can have one.

Next season is rumoured to feature Charles Manson, so I’d get up to speed now if you’ve not yet seen season one. It comes highly recommended as a bit of a surprise hit. 

Stranger Things season two: justice for Steve!

So Stranger Things, season one on Netflix a while back, arrived with some hype. But then, actually, more or less lived up to it; as it was entertaining, engaging and, pop culture wise, pretty savvy, as it tapped into our continuing obsession with the ’80s. And by tapped I mean it drank heavily from the well of that decade, from the obvious influence of The Goonies through to ET, Stand By Me and a host of others, the force of nostalgia was strong in this one.

But ’80s love aside, people also had a soft spot for the show because, by and large, it was simple, had a clear story and a bunch of interesting, relatable characters. It went: kid called Will (Noah Schnapp) gets lost in the ‘Upside Down’, aka hell or some such place, and his friends Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), along with his mum Joyce (Winona Rider) and police Chief Hopper (David Harbour) try to get him back, with the help of a rather gifted girl called Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown).

And that slightly thin plot was teased out to us gently and expertly, bit by bit. So it went that, for the majority of season one, none of the characters entirely knew what had become of Will – and by the time they figured out what the Upside Down was and how to get him back, we were already well into the final episodes. This meant there were a lot of loose story threads come the finish, but we forgave them because the show was cool and fun and season two was under way.

So with this second season the story picks up about a year on. Will is trying to live a normal life with his friends – and Eleven, last seen in the Upside Down, has gone awol.

And if almost dying in the Upside Down wasn’t bad enough, the other kids at school – thinking Will back from the dead – start calling him ‘zombie boy’; around the time he becomes troubled by visions of a shadow monster. Poor Will, there’s literally no rest for him.

And without giving too much away it’s fair to say the threat from the Upside Down grows, to the point where most characters are drawn back into the fight once again. Although this time round they’re more clued up and, in a nice wrinkle, have help rather than hindrance from the government scientists that were a thorn in their side first time round.

Moreover, as is the way with a popular show, a second season means bigger budgets, more effects and more characters. So with Eleven out of the picture (in a sense) we get a new arrival to town in the form of redhead gamer girl Max, who immediately becomes the focus for Lucas and Dustin, who just want to impress her. Mike, though, isn’t having any of it, as he stills pines for Eleven and believes she’s still alive somewhere out there.

Another addition this season is Max’s brother, who has moody rebel written all over him. He’s got mullet hair and looks like the lovechild of Rob Lowe and Bon Jovi. He smokes angrily, lifts weights whilst angrily listening to heavy metal. He drives angry (shout out Nic Cage) and, in short, he’s just angry. We find out why, but by that point it was obvious and I just didn’t care. He adds nothing to the season’s overall story and seems to get far too much screen time considering the lack of development of his character either in terms of getting a comeuppance or some sort of redemption.
Max, also, adds little to the story and feels like a stand-in for Eleven, which is not the actor’s fault, she’s just not given much focus or character. This season goes much like season one, in that it feels like the show’s creators are just setting stuff up for the next season, which is actually quite frustrating.

Eleven is an example, in that she’s on her own journey for most of the season, away from the main group. This could have worked for a show with twenty episodes, but in the tight ten that’s come to define modern TV, it feels like an unwelcome detour. We want her back with the gang being the bad ass, deeply complex, troubled, gifted girl that she is.

 

Other characters from the first season also suffer from a lack of love. Steve (Joe Keery), the ex-boyfriend of Mike’s older sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer) springs to mind. There’s memes going round of how Steve ends up in an exasperated babysitting role for a large portion of the season, forced to look after the younger characters as they go gallivanting off after monsters. This is true, but it’s the most interesting thing about him. He goes from borderline bad guy in season one to selfless hero, protector and mentor (of the younger kids like Dustin) in season two. Basically, what I’m saying is, I wanted more Steve. (As well as more Eleven.)

As an overall show though, it was a decent enough second season and the above points are minor gripes. Perhaps it’s just testament to the fact that I care about the characters that this season’s disjointed feel bothered me so much.

Still, season three is on the way I’m sure and I’ve got to hope it’ll push some characters on further. Maybe I’ll even get to see some sort of justice for Steve.

Glow: ladies, wrestling and Alison Brie

So Netflix have a new show out from the creators of ‘Orange is the New Black’. And I have to say, when I first saw it I thought it looked cool. It’s set in the 80s, everyone has big hair and bad ass neon costumes, and most of the characters are women who are trying to break into the male-dominated world of wrestling. Oh, and it’s got the awesomeness that is Alison Brie as the lead.

So yeah, it intrigued me. However, a little voice in the back of my head reminded me that I fell for this type of marketing recently with Jamestown (‘from the makers of Downton Abbey’ – turned out to be a dull period drama where not a lot really happened).

Anyway, with GLOW I remained hopeful. And, if you’re the kind of person that skips ahead to the ending I can reveal I wasn’t let down as much with GLOW as I was with Jamestown, as it got better as it went on, but wasn’t an instant classic. Which is slightly surprising given the cast, show’s creators and the whole concept. But we’ll get to why shortly. 

So GLOW is about ladies that wrestle. That are, indeed, gorgeous. The Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling. Clever eh?

We open with Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), a struggling actress killing an audition with a commanding monologue. Turns out she was reading the man’s part meant for Steve Guttenberg. 

A strong scene that demands your attention. The patriarchy was very much alive and kicking in the 80s (still is, in many ways). This show could be really good if it keeps this up.

So back to Ruth. She’s tenacious after many knockbacks in the acting world. So when she gets the chance to, she jumps at the opportunity to be part of a new, all-female wrestling show. (If that isn’t a sport positively dripping in testosterone then I don’t know what is.)

Quickly, she establishes herself as key villian, ‘Zoya the destroyer’ in the line-up of ragtag performers, opposite her former best friend Debbie ‘Liberty Belle’ (Betty Gilpin) – the hero if you will – and sparks duly fly.

So far so good.

Jumping ahead, near the season’s end the show gets into its stride, with the finale going for a Dodgeball feel, complete with sly, well-observed fight commentary from GLOW’s producer Sebastian ‘Bash’ Howard (Chris Lowell), which is a hoot to watch.

But this sort of stuff makes you wish there had been more of this earlier on in the season. Because once you reveal what you can do as a writer, you set your own bar that much higher. So as an audience we expect this level every time. But maybe that’s why they left the best stuff until the end? Anyway…I digress.

Along with Ruth we have half a dozen other ladies to get to know and they all get a scene or two, but it feels slightly jumbled. Plus, Ruth is frustratingly unsympathetic as a character to begin with, and the focus seems to drift from her to one or two others, without a clear idea of where the story is truly going. And the bold, feminist opening of the start seems to have been slightly forgotten in favour of just a straight up comedy. 

That said, there’s memorable scenes every episode and the sharp writing mostly continues throughout. Also, a highlight from more or less the off is the show’s schlocky B-movie director, Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), whose sardonic humour and world-weary view make for a nice contrast to the sparky group of oddballs and rejects with whom he’s trying to mould into something resembling professional. (It’s important to note that he’s not a dick to women specifically, but to everyone, as his own career is somewhat on the slide.)

I’ll end by saying that the encouraging signs were there in the final third of the season though. As the show seemed to come together and most of the characters felt like they had more of a sense of purpose and began to spark off each other in delightful ways as a group.

Moreover, Alison Brie’s performance, despite taking a while to warm to, was really the heart and soul of the whole thing. And we as an audience perhaps warm to her as her fellow wrestling team warm to her as things go on. Which you could say is really clever writing, if it was intentional. 

There is also the fact that, as the season took its time, we’ve barely scratched the surface with most characters. So there’s a lot more story to tell. Plus the feminist angle really only got touched on from time to time, so that’s also ripe to push a lot further. 

So if they do renew it, the future’s looks bright for the lycra-clad gorgeous gang. All hail the ladies that wrestle. 

Jamestown: season one review

In 1610, Jamestown became the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. At first, men only. Then a few years later women came, by way of being purchased as wives. In the same way one might buy tobacco at the time.

Which is a decent idea for a TV show, if you think about it. It’s cinematic, there’s lots of vast landscapes and ideas to explore and adventures to be had. And, weirdly, it feels fresh. Especially if you come at it from a feminist perspective.

Which you’d hope that Bill Gallagher, the guy behind this show, did do. Because, among other things, he’s had a hand in Downton Abbey, Lark Rise to Candleford and The Paradise. So he can do period drama and he can do compelling characters.

Plus, he’d heard about this slice of history and thought it would make an interesting canvas upon which to showcase his skills. No matter that Terence Malick had already had a crack at it, with the film The New World in 2005. Gallagher must have figured that, with Sky Atlantic backing him, he could tell a compelling story on the small screen on a juicy budget.

After all, he had worked on Downton Abbey. And everyone loves that.

Sadly, he hasn’t replicated his past successes. At least not to the same extent. Which is baffling, because all the component parts were there for a winner. It’s a period we haven’t much seen before, it’s got Native Americans, the untapped wilderness of Virginia, hunting for gold, politicking, fights for power, lusting, and a sexy cast.

And I say sexy because that’s how Sky marketed it. Sexy, but more importantly, feminist with it. Because the advertising had my partner and I thinking it’d be a show about women fighting their corner and controlling their destiny; in a time when they were literally sold as property and shipped off to a new world.

However, after a promising first episode, our enthusiasm quickly petered out as the show failed to live up to its hype.

Because the real problem is, that NOTHING MUCH REALLY HAPPENS. Ok, there are a lot of characters to introduce but we never really stick with any of them long enough to get that invested. And each episode seems to jump between them with no clear focus as to who our main protagonist is and what the thrust of the overall story is supposed to be.

Ultimately, screenwriting should only do one of two things: reveal character or drive the story forward.

And Gallagher doesn’t do much of either. You could argue that maybe two farmers, the Sharrow brothers, are the key focus. Silas (Stuart Martin) the quiet hero, just looking for a peaceful life with his new – but questionably acquired – wife Alice (Sophie Rundle). And Henry (Max Beesley), the intense and violent older brother, laser focused on finding gold that’ll shift the balance of power in the town in his favour.

The problem is I’m reaching for these two as the clear protagonist and antagonist of the show. Both Henry and Silas’s storylines meander along and neither character has that much agency. Silas, in particular, just reacts to things, rather than driving his story forward.

It probably also won’t escape your notice that I’m talking about two male characters when I had hoped this show would be feminist. Which is another gripe, as Gallagher sets up a host of promising female characters, then seems to only give them limited screentime when they should probably be the focus throughout.

For example we have Jocelyn (Naomi Battrick), betrothed to Samuel of the Virginia Company, and in a position as a Lady of standing in the town. Immediately we mark her out as the most Machiavellian character; plotting and scheming and twisting the town’s men round her little finger. Which is great to see. (Almost Cersei-esque a la Game of Thrones.) But too often she drifts for entire episodes, hovering in the background when she should be dictating proceedings. Which is, frustratingly, down to the show’s writers rather than Battrick’s performance.

Then there’s Alice (Sophie Rundle), betrothed to Henry but suffers a sexually violent act (another one on modern TV, how original) at his hands before they wed. He goes off in search of gold and she weds his brother Silas (with whom she’s conveniently fallen in love almost straight away). And whilst she has the potential as a character to bring righteous retribution in Henry’s direction, she seems to be largely stuck in ‘wet blanket’ mode, relying on Silas to protect her, which is a shame.

There’s also Verity (Niamh Walsh), married to the town drunk. She’s the fiestiest character and seems to get the best lines in terms of defending herself and her fellow females against the town’s boorish men. But she also waxes and wanes frustratingly, never progressing or shaking things up. 

And that’s pretty much how the whole season goes. Teasing you with the glimmers of interesting storylines and complex characters, then shying away from fully realising any of them. 
Maybe it’s the fault of shows like Game of Thrones, which just set the bar too high. But I don’t buy that. I think that this show is trying to play the long game and let things unfold over many seasons. But you just can’t do that these days. With so much good TV out there you need to be grabbing the viewer straight from the off, and keep them hooked EVERY SINGLE EPISODE. 

Sadly, this show doesn’t. So, if I was marking it, I’d say 5, maybe 6 out of 10. And I’d be very surprised if it got a second season. Which is a shame, but it would be its own fault.