Big Little Lies: the first two episodes

TV

So Sky Atlantic have a new flagship show out, Big Little Lies, written by David E. Kelly and based on a novel of the same name, penned by the wonderfully named Liane Moriarty.

And, as you’d expect, it’s got a formidable cast. One which includes Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz, Alexander Skarsgard and Shailene Woodley. Along with Academy Award nominated director Jean-Marc Vallee at the helm. Perhaps most notable for directing the acclaimed Dallas Buyers Club. But also for directing Witherspoon and Dern in Wild – a rather beautiful and underrated film. So, he’s got game. And as we all know, TV is big game these days. 

Now in terms of the story, I’m only two episodes in, but it’s layered – nay, dripping – with intrigue. You’ll be hooked fast. Indeed, Wikipedia describe it as a dark comedy drama and, whilst this is true, a simpler reference might be to say it’s Broadchurch meets Desperate Housewives, which is reductive, but gives you a rough idea. It’s far more cinematically shot and beautiful to look at than either of those, though. (Just saying.)

So in terms of story, what we have, is a number – for the most part – of highly privileged families that live near the beautiful Californian coastal town of Monterey. And the first scene opens with a crime; one where the details are murky and unknown to us. We’re then introduced – through Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) who’s new to the town – to the rest of its key players. In particular Madeline MacKenzie (Reese Witherspoon, in excellent form); a mother who specialises in poking her nose into everybody’s business and manipulating most scenarios to her own ends, often leveraging her children in the process. But there’s more to her than you first expect – naturally.

And whilst she drives much of the plot in these first episodes, the rest of the cast, in particular Jane (Woodley), Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Renata (Laura Dern), have more to them than first seems the case as well. So within a couple of scenes you’ll think you have them nailed as characters, then they subvert expectations – like good actors should. (And Kelly, as writer, no doubt had a hand in this as well.)

As these moments are ultimately where life resides right? In the wrinkles, the gaps between floorboards, the conversations between the sheets, the furtive glances and simmering silences of words left unsaid, or words said but loaded with subtext.

This will get you asking questions upon questions. What’s the crime that took place? What’s Jane’s backstory? Is there more to Celeste’s relationship than on show? Why do Renata and Madeline almost loathe each other? Why does Madeline feel the need to control things so much? Is everyone a suspect? They all seem to want to kill each other. 

And the list goes on…

Furthermore, other than Billions, with Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti (another on Sky Atlantic), a show hasn’t gripped me so quickly in quite the same way in some time. It’s a marvel in that respect, what clever screenwriting.

So in essence, it’s painfully human. It’s got more nuanced, flawed and complex characters than you can shake a stick at – and actors that have us believing in them from the get-go. It’s beautifully shot (hats off to Vallee), and it’s achieved all this in a mere couple of episodes. Plus it’s got an 86% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so I’m not alone in my assessment. 

This also means that if you didn’t catch it there’s still time. So do it. You know you want to.

True Detective: season 2 review

TV

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?

[Related articles]
Guardian article: In praise of… True Detective

Misfits series 4: First episode review

TV

I got introduced to Misfits a few months ago, loved it and blasted my way through the first two series. For those not in the know, it’s a science fiction comedy drama about a group of young offenders sentenced to community service. On their first day of work they get hit by lightning from a strange storm which gifts them supernatural powers.

A huge appeal of the show on release was how well written the main characters were and the overall tone. Dialogue was realistic, gritty, funny and very sharp. The plot was often very dark, balancing some great dramatic scenes with almost comedy horror at times.

In the first two series it achieved a perfect combination of a brilliant script and story arc, coupled with great chemistry between the actors playing the main characters. Indeed, the first series won a BAFTA for Best Drama in 2010. If you’ve missed it thus far, I urge you to go out and get the box-set to catch up. If you’d like a quick overview of the plot for each series to date, check that out here.

Back to basics…
I have a confession to make, I’ve yet to see series three. I loved the first two but have yet to see the third. With this kind of show I don’t think that’s a problem. Whilst some characters have continued from the third series, enough has changed for the fourth to be seen as a fresh start.

New characters Jess and Finn have been introduced and three characters (Alicia, Simon and Kelly) have left. The new group have another new probation worker (the life span of probation workers in this show is somewhat limited).

Key to the appeal of the show was the balance of the darker, horrific story elements with sharp comedy. In the original series actor Robert Sheehan – who played Nathan – was truly exceptional at getting this right. An incredibly talented actor. Check out some of his best bits here. A major spoiler if you’ve not seen the show, be warned!

New faces
Stepping into his shoes as the comic relief in the third series was actor Joseph Gilgun (who plays Rudy). Some of you will know him as Woody in This is England. Gilgun was well cast, but he was always going to struggle taking over from Sheehan, an actor who really made the comic relief aspect of the show his own and defined the first two series.

Gilgun’s character remains in this fourth series and seems to be taking a more central role as leader of the group. From what I gather he was perhaps not as dominant in series three, but will grow in influence in the current series. I’ve always been a fan and think casting him helped refresh and progress the show from the shadow of Sheehan, who arguably dominated the first two series at the expense of other characters.

For this new series I liked the introduction of Jess (played by excellently named actress Karla Crome) – she reminded me a little of a blend between characters Alicia and Kelly – smart, sassy and intelligent. Although we’ll have to see how she develops as the episodes progress.

Finn (actor Nathan Mcmullen) was a bit of a mystery to me. Not instantly engaging as a character. He sort of sat between being dark and comic, like a diet coke version of Rudy. That said, there was a small scene near the end of the episode that suggests his character may have a darker side and the possibility of an interesting back-story developing.

For me, it’s nice to have this show back. I’d forgotten how much I liked the concept, the tone and the sharp dialogue. I look forward to this current series. If you haven’t seen the first episode of this new series you can watch it here. Or get a taster with the episode trailer below.