Jamestown: season one review

TV

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.

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.