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.

True Detective: season 2 review

Whilst it’s incredibly easy to jump on the critical bandwagon and denounce the second season of True Detective as a confusing and unengaging flop, I feel that’s slightly unfair. It’s also unfair to constantly compare it to the first season. A season which, let’s face it, had little expectation, other than the fact it had a couple of A-listers in the lead roles. Yet delivered and then some.

For the sake of fairness, the first season had a couple of obvious but vital things going for it too. It was a simpler story, albeit leaping around time periods. It also had a secret weapon: Matthew McConaughey, a man at the top of his game. But, first and foremost, we identified with the two lead characters and the interaction they had together.

Fast forward to season two and the cast has changed and grown, the story has become more complex and layered, and the location has shifted from the simmering deep south to the urban sprawl of LA.

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So, it’s literally almost an entirely different show.

That said, some things remain. Such as the slow burn tone (expertly continued with a woozy, languorous and devilishly seductive soundtrack) and the tortured characters (instead of two leads we now have four – more bang for your buck). Although what this does mean is that we as an audience need to reinvest ourselves in an entirely new set of troubled souls.

So in step Colin Farrell (a washed up old copper desperate to connect with his kid), Rachel McAdams (a prickly detective unable to meaningfully connect with anyone at work or at home) and Taylor Kitsch (a young traffic cop grappling with – and hiding from – his sexuality), who are thrown together to initially solve a murder which spirals out into a much bigger web of corruption and deceit, partially involving Vince Vaughn’s aspirational gangster.

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With the series finale (after eight episodes) I was left feeling rather relieved it was all over as it had sort of collapsed under the own weight of its expectation. And, despite the cast all giving a decent account of themselves (particularly Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell), there was nothing they could do to elevate the confused and convoluted script.

Will there be a season 3?

Smart money would say no, although HBO are open to it. The first season was critically acclaimed and the second the polar opposite; maybe the result of just trying to be too ambitious for its own good and different for the sake of it? If that’s the case then the show’s creator Nic Pizzolatto should be applauded for his bravery. After finding a winning formula in season one he then oddly, largely, abandoned it. Or perhaps tried to evolve it, it’s hard to say.

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On the plus side there were definitely things to love about the second season. For example we had proper, cinematic, edge-of-your-seat scenes throughout, in particular a street gun battle in broad daylight that felt akin to the one in Michael Mann’s Heat.

Then there were quieter, more introspective moments that were incredibly tender and showed a deftness of touch. In particular a series of intensely vulnerable moments between Farrell and McAdams’ characters as they opened up to one another, which were understated and deeply moving.

In some ways I’d be interested to see what they do with a third season, should they choose to make one. Different location again? Different characters? Would any return or cross paths?

These days, TV audiences are a little spoilt for choice with the quality out there, despite the fact that the ‘golden age of TV’ is reportedly over. And anything that plays by its own rules is bound to divide people. But there is definitely a place for this sort of show, so maybe let’s not give it a kicking just yet eh?

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Guardian article: In praise of… True Detective

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD: season 2 review

Continuing storylines from the first season of Marvel’s mildly successful Agents of SHIELD, Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and his team had to rebuild SHIELD, following its demise due to the resurgence of Hydra.

As you’d expect, Coulson came back fighting. This season, however, Hydra haven’t occupied the limelight, everyone’s favourite super cute hacker Skye (Chloe Bennet) has, with the story focusing on her quest to understand her newly gained powers, following her exposure to alien Terrigen crystals at the end of season one.

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With season two, the show has begun to introduce the Inhumans and tie Marvel’s universe closer together. This is good but in TV it’s a fine balance. You don’t have the budget of film (despite being backed by Marvel) so you can’t go too big on spectacle; plus the most interesting thing has – and always will be – the human element, the interaction between the characters. Any special powers on display are fun, but they’re just there to dazzle. What we care about is the fate of the SHIELD team, Coulson and the gang.

Mostly this latest season has stayed focused on powers and with Hydra taking a back seat the season’s antagonist duties fell to Skye’s increasingly deranged father (Kyle Maclachlan) and (spoiler) the introduction of her scheming mother Jiaying (Dichen Lachman). So it becomes, in the words of Sly and the Family Stone, a family affair.

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To a lesser extent we also have disgraced Agent Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) as a sort of plan B antagonist, largely sidelined for most of the season but pop ups here and there to cause a little mayhem. The rest of the gang are all still present and correct, but maybe a little tougher and a little wiser, in particular Leo Fitz (Iain De Caestecker) and Gemma Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), whose ‘will they won’t they’ relationship becomes more fraught – and therefore more interesting – as the season goes on.

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Similarly another sub-plot involving Agent Bobbi Morse (Adrianne Palicki) and her on-off fella, fellow Agent Lance Hunter (Nick Blood) is sweet enough but mostly just filler (except when Bobbi fights of course, that’s worth the price of each episode alone).

The trouble with the whole show is that it lives in the shadow of Marvel’s epic films, which I’ll argue we’re all becoming a little desensitised to, in terms of scale and spectacle. So it’s difficult for the team to face a credible foe over the sustained period of a season. They had an evil Hydra bloke who liked to experiment on people with powers but, by the time they finally caught up with him Coulson shot him straight away.

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Perhaps this is a good thing. Keep changing up the baddie to keep the SHIELD gang – and by extension the audience – on their toes. Sometimes though, you just want a really clever, credible bad guy or girl. The show might be building up to that in season three with the Inhumans, so I guess we’ll see.

Despite my slight misgivings I do like the show and its tone and like spending time with the characters. They’re bright, breezy, sassy and kick ass (from time to time). They’re all slowly developing and evolving as the threats they face change, which is good to see. As long as it stays focused on keeping things human (and inhuman) then season three should be a fun ride.

The Following season two: Bacon and Purefoy back with a slice and a stab

203-003-the-following-trust-me-photos-lightbox-tbdSo… it seems The Following is back. A bit of a surprise hit when it aired last year so no big shock that it’s got another season. If you missed it first time round, the show largely focuses on two characters: wounded (physically and emotionally), brooding former FBI guy Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) and the charismatic and learned lecturer-turned-serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy).

The cat and mouse game these two play is what makes this work. Ok, the script is decent and intriguing, suspenseful even. But for me, the secret lies in the casting and the characters. We often know where the story is going but it’s a fun ride getting there.

Whether it’s big or small screen, Americans adore a bad guy played by a Brit. And in Purefoy’s Carroll they’ve got just that; as his cult ‘following’ of wannabe killers grows, you feel yourself drawn into his orbit – you believe people would follow Carroll and want to please him.

To his credit, Purefoy doesn’t overplay it, but gives Carroll real believability as a cult leader. The way he actually kills people is like some sort of visceral and cathartic release, almost sexual at times. 202-007-the-following-for-joe-photos-lightbox-tbdYou can imagine Family Guy’s Stewie describing him as ‘deliciously evil’.

And then there’s Kevin Bacon’s Ryan Hardy. Wounded by Carroll in a previous encounter, he now has a bum ticker and, as a former FBI man, he plays fast and loose with the law to catch Carroll. Oh, and he drinks, making him your all-round, typical flawed antihero.

Funnily enough, I see both Carroll and Hardy as protagonists, they’re both so interesting you want them both to come out of it with a measure of success. Or, to put it in other terms, you want them to go round and round each other forever, much like Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight or De Niro and Pacino in Heat. Two sides of the same coin.

Anyway, that’s the setup. And, without ruining season one for those that haven’t seen it, Hardy and Carroll scrap it out to the bitter end in a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion. I say satisfying because, whilst it brought the series to a nice close, it left it open for a follow up.

With season two events pick up a year on, Carroll has gone into hiding and Hardy is getting on with his life. He’s stopped drinking, he’s hosting dinner parties. In short, he’s becoming well adjusted… to a degree.sam-photos-lightbox-tbd

Then bam, stabbings and murders galore. Carroll’s followers celebrating the anniversary of his ‘death’ at the end of season one (it’s no spoiler to say this, of course the main bad guy survives for a second season!), go on a killing spree on the subway shouting ‘Carroll lives. Ryan Hardy can’t stop him!’ Then, slowly but surely, little factions of his followers begin to emerge.

One of Carroll’s original followers, Emma, returns sporting a new punk rock haircut. We’ve also got a new love interest for Ryan Hardy in the form of art dealer Lily Gray (Danish beauty, Connie Nielsen), a character who will no doubt have a hidden agenda or two (the internet is already awash with theories, time will tell).

But most interestingly we’re introduced to a pair of twins: handsome, well dressed lads (both played by Sam Underwood) that put you in mind of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Underwood is an interesting actor (another evil Brit!), already carving out a career playing characters with a dark side (see his work in Dexter and Homeland). The twins pay homage to Carroll in a series of elaborate and poetic murders that set things up nicely in terms of intrigue and a wild card element for the season.

And all that in the first two episodes. It’s nice to have the show back.