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.

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…

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. 

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.