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…

The addict

Obsession. It’s intense, yet the word doesn’t make sense.
I mean, c’mon, it sounds like a fragrance.
And it’s telling when, in your efforts to define, you end up with something that sounds like it’s from Calvin Klein.
It creeps up on you too. Like a warm embrace that beckons and entices we’re all fallible, we all have our vices.

Let’s start at the top.

From greed and a basic need to feed, food porn is born.
Sharing pictures of your dinner on social media does not make you a winner, but more of a sinner.
Ladies I’m looking at you, you’re mostly to blame. For God’s sake it’s just food.
Then lads you get your fair share, for ladies often look at you with despair when you obsess over sport, with no second thought for anything else.
Sacrificing your health to get on the beer and support your team the thin veneer of your obsession is really quite obscene.
And talking of beer, most of you don’t think when it comes to drink.
It’s like a chink in your armour, after a few jars your personality becomes larger, the attachment you have to your judgement becomes farther… and farther away, to the point where you hope and pray that you make it to the next day without your mates looking at you with dismay.

‘It was the drink!’ you cry.
My oh my, there’s that vice again, rising to the surface like an old friend.

And as far as old friends go there’s one you love to detest, probably because it’s simply the best, and that’s sex.
The ultimate need to feed and the strongest vice of all. Indulging this one too much will set you up for a nasty fall.
‘It’s so damn cruel’ you exclaim, for this vice often leaves you drained and deranged and in a lot of pain, it’s insane.

But without our vices what would we be?
Giving in to our dark side seems so easy and our time doesn’t come for free, as you’ll see.
In life though, as in nature, a balance must be struck. Before we give in to our desire to eat, drink and, er… make love, we must be strong and play the long game.
‘It’s hip to be square’, as the song says. You know, the one by Huey Lewis and the News.
Checking myself though you’ll have to excuse as I’ve strayed from the point and it’s clear my brain is all out of joint.
Probably those vices again.
About time I welcomed them back.
After all, they’re old friends.

Masters of Sex: season one review

Episode 101Like all good seductions, the buildup is slow. Starting a new TV show in this day and age is hard – partly because the bar has been raised so high. We’re living in a golden age of TV and, as viewers, our demands are great.

And so, what new show Masters of Sex has done so brilliantly over its first season, is tread that fine line between giving us what we want and what we need: developing characters slowly in a most pleasing way. For those that missed the boat, the story is based on Thomas Maier’s biography Masters of Sex: The Life and Times of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, the Couple Who Taught America How to Love. Hats off to writer/producer Michelle Ashford for creating this show – one of the TV treats of the year.

So there’s the platform. All you need at this point are actors who can bring your vision to life. Step forward Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. Sheen, as we know, is an A-list actor. And like many actors of the big screen, lately he’s returning to TV (although, to be fair, Sheen is one of those who likes to dip in and out of both big and small screen).Episode 106

For Caplan, this marks a career high point. That’s not a disparaging remark – up to now she’s had notable film parts in Cloverfield and Mean Girls and numerous TV roles, including a stint in True Blood – however, here she is front and centre as ambitious secretary-turned-researcher Virginia Johnson, going deliciously toe-to-toe with Sheen’s Dr. William Masters.

Indeed, what makes this show work so brilliantly – aside from the compelling script and plot – is the chemistry between Johnson and Masters. Not obvious at first, but as the story progresses through the season, their intricate relationship begins to take shape. A lot lies under the surface with furtive looks and glances belying hidden intent; plaudits to Caplan and Sheen for luring us in – making us want to spend more time with these characters.

Masters-of-Sex-101That said, it’s not just their show, the supporting cast were also a joy, particularly Provost Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) and his wife Margaret (played by the brilliant Allison Janney). Rather than provide filler for downtime from the main characters (as many shows tend to do), they added meat to the bones of the overall story; each bringing a new element along the way.

So, hurrah I say, for this new show. An unexpected treat. A second season has already been signed off, so more of this tale to follow. If you missed it first time round, there’s a million ways to catch up these days, which I urge you to do. Ignore lazy Mad Men comparisons and just focus on the characters and story they have to tell. You’ll be pleasantly rewarded.

Bittersweet biopic – The Look of Love

I saw this at an advance screening back in November 2012. It doesn’t come out till the start of March in the UK, but as that’s realistically not that far off, let’s review!

The Look of Love is about the life and career of Paul Raymond aka the ‘King of Soho’, played by Steve Coogan. Born and raised in Liverpool, Raymond moved to London and opened Britain’s first strip club – the Raymond Revuebar – in 1958.

Featuring acts such as nude dancers performing with snakes, his club often grabbed headlines and incurred the wrath of authorities for its controversial nature. Yet, as you’d expect, this increased its popularity and success.

Within a few years Raymond expanded into publishing and bought adult title Men Only in 1971. However, the real reason he gained the ‘King of Soho’ name in the 1970s was down to property. Building his portfolio up purchasing much of Soho, he passed a fortune on to his grandchildren estimated upwards of £650m.

tamsin egerton steve cooganThe setup
Directed by Michael Winterbottom and starring Steve Coogan, the film features a strong cast including Anna Friel, Imogen Poots and Chris Addison.

It’s also a bit of a showcase for British comedy, with appearances from David Walliams, Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas, Simon Bird and more. In the case of Bird and Addison they’re hidden under a lot of hair (it is set in the 70s!), but you’ll laugh when you spot them.

To call it a comedy though, would be misleading. It’s a biopic – informative, tragic, funny, touching and ultimately bittersweet. It charts the rise of Raymond’s empire and the relationships with the women central to his life and success: wife (Friel), mistress (Egerton) and daughter (Poots).

Tender, tragic and charming
Coogan is quite brilliant in this role. In some ways Raymond can come across as quite unsympathetic; no time for his children, first abandoning his wife for his mistress, then mistress for whomever the next girl may be.

tamson egerton steve cooganCredit to Coogan, he manages to give Raymond a warmth and accessibility. He comes across as a guy trying to do his best, but doomed to make the same mistakes with all the women in his life, of which there are many. He also plays the role quite straight, allowing comic moments to reveal themselves accordingly – plus this gives room for more obvious comedic characters to shine.

Friel is outstanding as the fiery, yet vulnerable wife, coming in and out of his life at various moments. Egerton, too, plays her part well, as the sexy mistress who eventually runs out of patience with Raymond’s philandering ways.

For me, the biggest revelation was Poots as Raymond’s daughter, Debbie. Clearly a doting if misguided father, he indulges her every whim, including her desire to perform on stage headlining her own show. It isn’t a success and this kick-starts Debbie’s downward spiral, resulting in her death from heroin in 1992.

Poots gives Debbie an innocence and vulnerability that really gives dramatic heft to her fall from grace. Particularly when Raymond just isn’t there for her in the ways a father should be. When catching her doing cocaine for the first time, his fatherly advice is to ‘make sure it’s the best stuff and not rubbish from street dealers’.

Sex sells where love fails
This film shares a certain something with biopic Gia, based on the rise and fall of America’s first supermodel Gia Carangi, starring Angelina Jolie. It also had elements of Blow – a biopic starring Johnny Depp – based on the real life story of American cocaine smuggler George Jung.

Whilst both those were set in America, grand in scale and glamorous, The Look of Love is very much a British affair. Quirky, subtly amusing; finding comedy in tragedy and absurdity of the situation. There’s glamour, nudity and drugs, but it’s on more of an understated British level.

Ultimately, it’s an interesting little tale of a showman’s rise to fame through exploitation of the age-old motto ‘sex sells’. Yet what it does most cleverly – if you take away the glitz and glamour – is tell the tale of a man who surrounds himself with sex, yet fails to succeed at love. Either pushing it away with wives and girlfriends or – in the tragic case of his daughter – failing to live up to his responsibilities as a father.

Sometimes jumping between comedy and tragedy can seem jarring and uneven in tone, leaving the audience confused about what they are supposed to feel. Winterbottom does a great job, balancing these two elements to keep the film light when it needed to be, yet ensuring dramatic scenes still rang true.

So if you like true stories in a period setting, filled with tender, subtle drama and light, comic moments, go see it. But don’t expect an out-and-out comedy. It’s a more nuanced, reflective and complex tale – and that’s a good thing.