Saturday, 31 December 2011

CHUCK, 5.8 - "Chuck Versus the Baby"




Another terrific episode of what's quickly becoming one of Chuck's best seasons, which is a great turnaround after the lacklustre fourth. "Chuck Versus The Baby" put the spotlight on Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) and explained more of her character's back-story, specifically in the period after she'd joined the CIA and before she agreed to become Chuck's (Zachary Levi) handler for Director Graham (Tony Todd). It was also another brilliant showcase of Strahovski's athleticism and screen charisma, making this something of a spiritual sequel to "... Versus Phase Three" (where Sarah did everything in her power to rescue Chuck single-handed in southeast Asia.)

This time, flashbacks to Budapast five years ago revealed that Sarah was part of an operation with handler Ryker (Tim DeKay) to retrieve a "package", which turns out to be a baby girl who's heir to a dead family's fortune and the only thing standing in the way of Ryker getting his hands on that money. Understandably upset about this turn of events, Sarah took it upon herself to kill Ryker and smuggle the baby to safety—namely her mother's (Cheryl Ladd) home. However, now it appears that Ryker survived his gunshot and he's back with a plan to make Sarah give up the location of the now five-year-old heir, and Sarah can't let Chuck or Casey (Adam Baldwin) know the full details without endangering their lives.

Much of this story doesn't make sense when you really stop to think about it, but watertight plots with robust motives aren't really Chuck's strong suit. The point is, this episode did a great job explaining how Sarah's been changed for the better by meeting Chuck—as she was once a loner from a dysfunctional family who became a ruthless killer for the government, but now has a loving husband, friends, and the potential to lead a very happy and normal life. In reuniting with her mother (whose absence from the show till now finally makes some sense) and meeting her "sister" Molly for the first time, she's even healed old wounds and isn't quite so reliant on Chuck's extended family. If Gary Cole can be persuaded to return as Sarah's conman father before the season's done, I'll be overjoyed.

I'm astonished Chuck hasn't featured many Sarah-centric episodes over its five years, because they're always a season highlight. Maybe their rareness is part of the appeal, because Sarah and her history aren't as overexposed as Chuck's own. It was also a huge relief that they made such a brilliant casting decision, with ex-Charlie's Angels star Cheryl Ladd being the ideal person to play Sarah Walker's mother. She has a resemblance to Strahovski and is famous for playing a character that was effectively the '70s Sarah Walker, plus she can act—which is a skill poor Linda Hamilton appears to have lost, from what we saw of her as Chuck's sourpuss mom last year. I hope this isn't the last we've seen of Ladd.

The subplots this week were okay, and fortunately improves as the story progressed. At first the idea of "couple therapy" over a board game played in Castle wasn't very appealing, but somehow the actors made it work. I find it quite amusing that Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) and Devon (Ryan McPartlin) get such a thrill by pretending to be spies, here play-acting an "interrogation" with Devon doing a terrible British accent. And while I'm not the biggest fan of Morgan (Joshua Gomez) and Alex (Mekenna Melvin) as a couple, because it feels even more unlikely than Chuck/Sarah ever did, I'm glad they've got back together so we can finally move on.

Overall, "... Versus The Baby" was a really great episode and again served as evidence that, if there's any justice in this world, Yvonne Strahovski will get the chance to headline an action-packed TV series of her own after Chuck ends. I was also pleased the story didn't decide to explain that Sarah herself once gave birth to a daughter, whom she gave up to focus on her career, if only because that was the more cliched choice. Above all, this episode highlighted beautifully just how far Sarah's developed as a person, even if a sizable chunk of the changes have been hidden from us. But it's hours like this that help us see why Sarah's so in love with Chuck, because it runs much deeper than just having found a nice guy who makes her laugh and is loyal as a puppy. He's allowed her to blossom as a person and is giving her the happy family she was denied herself.

Asides

  • Tim DeKay co-stars with Matthew Bomer on White Collar, who previously starred as Bryce Larkin in the first three seasons of Chuck.
  • If Sarah's sister is still the heir to a massive fortune in Budapest, it must surely be feasible the Walker family can get their hands on that money? Speaking of fortunes, why hasn't Chuck been given the frozen Volkoff millions back, now that mess with Decker has been sorted out?
  • I'm also happy that Chuck and Sarah don't want to go back to being CIA spies, as that really did feel like a backwards step for this final season. I'm enjoying the independent spirit of Carmichael Industries a lot more, and it helps gives the Buy More some relevance.
  • The opening action sequence with Sarah shooting dead a house full of bad guys, later while carrying baby Molly with her, was probably in homage to John Woo's Hard Boiled—where Chow Yun Fat does pretty much the same thing in a hospital. The table-top gunfight was also similarity to a scene in The Crow.
  • They didn't mention the name of Sarah's mother, which is probably intentional because they've also never revealed what Sarah's maiden name is! I'm not sure that's a mystery anyone's intrigued by, so why all the continued secrecy? Is it a really embarrassing name, being saved for a joke in the finale?
written by Rafe Judkins & Lauren LeFranc / directed by Matt Barber / 30 December 2011 / NBC

Friday, 30 December 2011

Dan's Most Anticipated TV Shows of early-2012

Who cares about what was good or disappointing about television in 2011? That's all in the past now, so let's move on. 2012! A shiny new year, full of old favourites and exciting newcomers. Below I pick my 11 Most Anticipated TV Shows of the new year period (Jan/Feb), so be sure to keep an eye out for the following on your screens:

11. Mad Dogs
(Sky1, 19 Jan) I'm in two minds about this show's return. I really loved half of series 1's four episodes, but felt the story tailed off sharply and didn't end well. Even worse, I didn't expect and still don't understand why Mad Dogs is coming back, because the story didn't seem to demand it. So I'm intrigued to see what they have planned in this second year, and if some lessons will have been learned from before. If nothing else, the great cast (John Simm, Philip Glenister, Marc Warren, Max Beesley) should be worth watching as the four childhood friends having a terrible time in paradise.

10. Smash
(NBC, 6 Feb) As Glee gets more ridiculous and repetitive, drowning in its own self-righteous silliness and celebrity cameos, will this brand new musical drama steal some of its thunder? I doubt it, because Smash is a very different beast, but maybe there are some disillusioned Glee fans who are craving something more substantial and dramatic. This song-and-dance drama, about the making of a Broadway show based on Marilyn Monroe's life, should be worth a few hours of your precious time.

9. Eternal Law
(ITV1, 5 Jan) A brand new fantasy drama from the writers behind Life On Mars and Ashes To Ashes, which is reason enough to be excited. (Unfortunately they also did renowned flop Bonekickers, so there are no guarantees.) Eternal Law concerns two heavenly angels, Zak and Tom, who are working as lawyers in modern-day York and use their abilities to influence the community around them in a positive way. Will this be a mawkish Highway To Heaven-style courtroom drama? I have no idea, but it should be worth finding out.

8. Luck
(HBO, 29 Jan) A drama written by David Milch (Deadwood), with a pilot directed by Michael Mann (Heat), starring Dustin Hoffman in his first TV role. Those facts alone guarantee many people will be tuning into this horse racing drama, but it remains to be seen if this equine underworld and its granite-faced characters will charm viewers into going the distance. But can you really refuse anything that co-stars Nick Nolte, Ian Hart, Dennis Farina and Michael Gambon?

7. Justified
(FX, 17 Jan) The third season of Justified will hopefully build on the brilliant second, now the writers have found a great balance between telling standalone stories while keeping an eye on an larger story arc. Great performances from Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins, who are joined this year by the beautiful Carla Gugino as a U.S Marshall Assistant Director (an actress who's no stranger to the work of author Elmore Leonard, having starred in Karen Sisco).

6. Being Human
(BBC Three, TBA) This will be a difficult series of the supernatural drama, given the departure of Aidan Turner (as tortured vampire Mitchell) and the knowledge that Russell Tovey's werewolf George is also leaving. Creator Toby Whithouse has his work cutout introducing a more urbane vampire to the group dynamic (played by Irishman Damien Moloney), and it remains to be seen if fans will accept the coming changes. Might it be best to end the show and let fans embrace the fluffier US remake? Maybe, but I'm very interested to see if Being Human can keep its audience as 66% of the original cast leave for pastures new.

5. Touch
(Fox, 25 Jan) It's Kiefer Sutherland's return to TV after 24, in a brand new sci-fi mystery series from the creator of Heroes. The setup is very simple: Sutherland plays the father of an autistic/mute boy who is able to predict various disasters, which he then has to prevent. It doesn't sound very original, but you can't deny the potential for some exciting case-of-the-week stories as father and son save the day together. The test here will be finding ways to stop the formula becoming too irritating. At least it's only been given a half-season order, so it stands a better chance of not outstaying its welcome.

4. The River
(ABC, 7 Feb) Horror is the big thing on television right now, following the success of True Blood and American Horror Story (we'll forget the unjust failure of the brilliant Harper's Island). What makes The River so anticipated is its unique-for-television format: a documentary-style affair similar to The Blair Witch Project, about the search for a famous explorer who goes missing in the Amazon. Six months later, the man's family go on a search to uncover what happened to him, joined by a documentary filmmaker, and discover supernatural goings-on. From the director of Paranormal Activity and a writer of Millennium, The River has the potential to be something really gripping.

3. Alcatraz
(Fox , 16 Jan) The latest project from JJ Abrams' Bad Robot production company, Alcatraz could go either way. The concept sounds great for a movie (prisoners from "The Rock" all go missing one night in the past, only to reappear in the modern-day), but can a TV series sustain that idea and keep audiences interested? It's hard to see how the writers will keep this rolling for years (can't they just interrogate their first recaptured fugitive for answers?), but I'm willing to give anything with Abrams' name attached the benefit of the doubt. Even if he's not actually very hands-on with these shows, day to day.

2. Spartacus: Vengeance
(Starz, 27 Jan) The first true sequel to Spartacus: Blood & Sand, after last year's brilliant prequel, Vengeance sees the show painting on a much bigger canvas. The budget is bigger, meaning the show can take the gladiators beyond the confines of the Capua arena and their training camp, out into the wider world. The big uncertainty is if Liam McIntyre will prove to be a fitting replacement for the late Andy Whitfield in the title role, but I see no reason to be concerned from the trailers. He looks very similar (which helps) and appears to have the same kind of charisma. Expect more ultra-violence, sex, politics, tragedy, nudity, double-crosses, gore, swearing, death and mutilation. I can't think of many shows that are so relentlessly fun and entertaining.

1. Sherlock
(BBC One, 1 Jan) The long-awaited return of the BBC's Sherlock Holmes update, with Benedict Cumberbatch back as the world's greatest sleuth and Martin Freeman as amiable colleague Dr Watson. It's been 18-months since series 1's cliffhanger, and what's exciting about series 2 is that co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have chosen to adapt Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous stories: the one with Irene Adler ("A Scandal In Bohemia"), the one with a beast prowling the moors ("The Hound Of The Baskervilles"), and the one where Sherlock confronts his arch-nemesis Moriarty ("The Final Problem"). With three of the best stories to hand, if Sherlock maintains its sense of visual style, wit and inventiveness, I think we already have a very early contender for Best TV Show of 2012...

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Review: FELIX & MURDO, 1.1 – "Pilot"




Originally part of Channel 4's Comedy Showcase season, Felix & Murdo was instead held back as a festive treat, and this pilot was decent enough to justify a full series next year. Written by Simon Nye (Men Behaving Badly), this studio-based sitcom is set in 1908 and revolves around banker/inventor Felix (Ben Miller) and rich toff Murdo (Alexander Armstrong), two "modern" housemates who live with their butler Archie (Marek Larwood). There was an undeniably confidence to this half-hour, perhaps because Nye's a veteran of writing sitcoms and its eponymous double-act are effectively reprising their "posh pals" act they've been doing for many, many years. The gags were hit-and-miss, and sometimes the comedy came from very obvious places (lots of anachronisms), but for the most part it had a snappy charm.

Much of its success was down to the cast. While nothing here was a stretch for Armstrong and Miller, they're very capable performers and know how to calibrate a performance in front of a live studio audience. There was also good support from Larwood as the long-suffering butler, Katy Wix as Felix's fiancé (who won't have sex with him before marriage), and particularly the brilliant Georgina King as Felix's suffragette sister Winnie (who, rather like Daisy Haggard, has the perfect funny/pretty face for comedy). More than anything, I wanted to spend time with these actors again, if only so the writing can perhaps become less manic and the characters get some time to mellow and grow. It was all a little too frantically paced at times, although that nixed any potential for boredom setting in.

As with every historical sitcom, it'll be compared unfavourably to the classic Blackadder saga, but this appeared to be going more for Father Ted-style strangeness and sight gags (like the reveal of a street urchin handing money out from inside an "automated" cash dispenser, or the presence of a Mrs Doyle analog in Mrs Snivel the bank clerk), with a slightly unnecessary tendency to suddenly go very crude. A hangover from Nye's days on Men Behaving Badly, no doubt. I'm not against rudeness, but for some reason it felt misplaced to be mentioning various sexual acts in a show like Felix & Murdo—perhaps because we associate the Edwardian age with impeccable manners. I think allusions and euphemisms would be funnier, but others may disagree and find its raunchier nature refreshing.

Overall, I really want Felix & Murdo to succeed, so we need to see more and hope Simon Nye improves on this confident but uneven start. As a defender of the "old-fashioned studio sitcom" format, it's about time we had one that reminded people of why they were previously so popular up until the late-'90s. It's the communal feeling they evoke, in what's essentially live theatre that's being televised, with actors tailoring their performance based on live feedback from real people watching. When it's done right, it's still a pleasure. Let's hope Channel 4 give the go-ahead for more Felix & Murdo, which definitely deserves a chance to blossom.

written by Simon Nye / directed by Christine Gernon / 28 December 2011 / Channel 4

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Dan's 10 Disappointing TV Shows of 2011


Let's get one thing straight: this isn't a list of the Top 10 Worst TV Shows of 2011, although many of the following programmes would definitely appear on one. I just think it's too easy to throw together 10 terrible television shows, but the truth is I don't tend to watch the really awful stuff for longer than a few episodes.

Instead, my list is about the TV shows that were just about good enough to keep you watching, or you felt obliged to stick with out of loyalty to the brand, genre, or talent involved.... but were nevertheless very disappointing. Fact is, I watched all the episodes of everything on this list, so on some level you could say they were a success, but that's not to say I enjoyed most of what I saw.

I hope that explains my thinking behind some of the picks you don't agree with here, or are perhaps surprised by. The same overall rules apply as before, especially regarding how shows that premiered in 2010 can be counted if they broadcast 50% of their episodes in 2011.

And now, here are my most Disappointing TV Shows of this year...

10. American Horror Story
(Season 1) I grew to strangely enjoy this show, as you "enjoy" picking at a thick scab. From the creative minds of Ryan Murphy and Bryan Falchuk (Nip/Tuck, Glee), this was a "haunted house" movie stretched to 12 episodes, about the dysfunctional Harmon family moving into a Los Angeles home full of frightening ghosts from the building's notorious past. It contained some neat ideas (like how some ghosts are so corporeal they interact with the living as "real people"), and Jessica Lange's performance was brilliant as bonkers neighbour Constance. But the problem with AHS is that it had no sense of self-discipline, the story felt half-improved, some of the actors didn't have the right approach to the material (especially Connie Britton), and a great deal of its better ideas were stolen from movies. (The show even used music from Psycho and Bram Stoker's Dracula!) Okay, it was by design and thus intended to be a loving confection of tropes, but for me it came across as desperate. (random reviews) FX / FX UK

9. The Killing
(Season 1) There are far worse shows around, but The Killing is on this list because of how disappointing it became. What's extraordinary is that it had the best pilot of 2011, by some margin, and I was engrossed for the first five weeks. Based on the Danish original (which is required viewing for Guardian readers here in the UK), all American showrunner Veena Sud had to do was Americanise where appropriate and condense the 20-episode foreign season into half that time Instead, she flushed away many people's goodwill by revealing a "twist" that meant half the season had been a colossal waste of our time, and then gave us a finale that didn't bother answering the "Who Killed Rosie Larsen?" question. That would have been defensible, had we not been led to believe there would be an answer this year, as most people only kept watching past episode 7 for an answer that never came. A crying shame, because the production on The Killing was exemplary, with a brilliant atmosphere (perpetual rain, overcast skies) and thrumming soundtrack. But they should have kept their eyes on the story and were wrong to mislead the audience to this extent. (review archive) AMC / CHANNEL 4

8. Chuck
(Season 4) The little show that would have been cancelled halfway through season 2, at any other time in NBC's history. It's managed to scratch out five seasons, but the fourth is where it started to lose much of its curious appeal. This is primarily because its story arcs didn't work for me, especially the annoying "search for Chuck's long-lost mom" storyline that soaked up so much time. As "Mama Bartowski", Linda Hamilton (Terminator 2) reminded us why her career tanked in the mid-'90s, bringing zero humour and scant charisma to an underwritten role. She was simply there because of her association with a geeky franchise, allowing the writers to do some cute Terminator in-jokes. Ex-007 Timothy Dalton fared better as a scene-chewing Russian super-villain, but even he outstayed his welcome. A poor year of a show that probably deserved the axe this summer, although the current fifth season has been much better... (review archive) NBC / SKY LIVING

7. Glee
(Season 2) If we're honest, Glee started to lose itself as early as mid-season 1 after its winter hiatus, but season 2 is where I lost patience. Overstuffed with (mostly weak) pop songs, it became clear the three writer-producers had little idea what to do with their talented cast. Beyond the storyline with Kurt and his move to the Dalton Academy, it was a case of random romantic match-ups (which were on/off more times than a light switch) and far too many celebrity guest stars. Gwyneth Paltrow had a brilliant first appearance (singing Cee Lo Green's "Forget You"), but bringing her back twice didn't work. The season also gave us too many "themed episodes", from Britney Spears to Rocky Horror. What was once a joyful show that made you giggle and hum along to cheery music became a one-trick pony you wanted to see put down. The most annoying thing is that I'm still watching Glee today, halfway through the even worse third season. I really have no excuse, beyond masochism and an unhealthy fascination with dancer Heather Morris. (random reviews FOX / E4

6. Episodes
(Season 1) A satire on TV production, specifically when hit British comedies get remade into terrible US remakes, Episodes was a leaden and unfunny misfire on most levels. There were performances from Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig (as a British screenwriting couple trying to keep their principles in the face of adversity), with a fairly amusing turn from Friends' Matt Le Blanc playing "himself", but it simply wasn't enjoyable to watch all the way through. It limped along after a poor start, with perhaps two episodes that actually rose to an acceptable quality level, which isn't enough. Given the talent involved and subject-matter that felt like it could have something to say about Anglo-American cultural differences, Episodes was one of this year's bigger disappointments to me. A comedy that had its handful of targets in mind, and bludgeoned them over and over, week after week... (review archive) BBC2 / SHOWTIME

5. Dexter
(Season 6) It's a huge shame to see Dexter appear on this ignoble list, as a few short years ago it was a regular in my Best Shows list, but season 6 was the year when the wheels finally came off Showtime's top-rated series. There have been warning signs for awhile now, notably during the ragged fifth season, but this year was a particularly bad run. Despite the potential of delving into a religious theme, the writers lost sight of what made the show so great in its heyday, and countless mistakes amassed throughout its run. The greatest sin being a twist tardily revealed weeks after most fans had guessed it, and a peculiar decision to have Deb suddenly find her adopted brother sexually attractive. Throw in the show's continuing problems in giving its extended cast anything worthwhile to do (just kill a few already!), and the misjudged casting of Colin Hanks as the season's villain (who's no Jimmy Smits, let alone a John Lithgow), and Dexter simply ran aground under a weight of shit. The only hope is knowing the show now has an end-date of 2013, so the writers can work towards a definite conclusion. Trouble is, can its current writing staff pull something off that fans will enjoy? (review archive) SHOWTIME

4. Primeval
(Series 4 & 5) This year we had a double-dose of Primeval, because digital partner Watch showed series 5 months after ITV finished series 4, as they were filmed back-to-back. It was an unexpected return of a show ITV axed because of costs, with two new regular characters along for the ride, but this was a very inauspicious year. Primeval has rarely been good, but it can be fun if you accept its flaws and formulas. I just don't think it has anything left to offer anyone, because the new characters were a washout (especially tedious Irish "action man" Matt), and the fifth series in particular was a big waste of time until a half-decent finale. It's a show that has moments to enjoy, but it's reached a point where I'm struggling to stay interested on a character or storytelling level—or even in a superficial "ooh, dinosaurs" way, to be frank. (review archive) ITV1 / WATCH / BBC AMERICA

3. Outcasts
It had a familiar yet appealing premise, an ambitious production filming in South Africa, with some good actors involved, but Outcasts failed to live up to expectations. SF nerds took great delight in tearing the show's setup apart, and none of the characters left any impression (apart from the excellent Liam Cunningham). It didn't help that Jamie Bamber's character was killed off in the first episode, or that so much of the story and twists felt analogous to things we've seen done better in Lost, Battlestar Galactica and Solaris recently. I have an appetite for intelligent SF mysteries with a measured pace and emphasis on character, but Outcasts just wasn't any fun and almost crawled through its hours. However, it did inspire this blog's busiest article in many years! (review archive) BBC1 / BBC AMERICA

2. Life's Too Short
(Series 1) The sitcom that appears to prove The Office's Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are creatively bankrupt, Life's Too Short distilled everything they've done before (a mockumentary format poking fun at a disabled character, with meta-jokes and celebrity cameos) but did nothing new or interesting with those ingredients. For half the seven episodes, it didn't even feel like a Warwick Davis-starring sitcom, as so much was an excuse to shoehorn in Gervais, Merchant and a guest-star-of-the-week. Things improved slightly for the last three episodes, once the storyline with Warwick's divorce became a bigger focus, but my goodwill was exhausted by then. It just wasn't insightful or clever, as everything here had been done better in Extras, and poor Warwick was forced to play himself-doing-a-David-Brent impersonation. A sore disappointment from two writers who used to demand only the best, but are now happy to devise stupid shows for their friends (see also Karl Pilkington's An Idiot Abroad). (review archive) BBC2

1. Torchwood: Miracle Day
While there were concerns about "Americanizing" Torchwood when Russell T. Davies announced those plans, I don't think any fan anticipated the debacle that Miracle Day became. It still had its creator at the helm, who managed to recruit a writing staff of people who'd worked on some impressive shows (Buffy, House, Battlestar Galactica, X Files, Breaking Bad), and it wisely refused to tone down the sex/violence. In fact, quite a few people believed this could be the making of Torchwood because it had more money to play with, had a very ambitious high-concept story (everyone on the planet suddenly stops dying for an unexplained reason), and was reprising its very successful Children Of Earth miniseries format.

Unfortunately, Miracle Day fell flat on its face after a decent start. Once the novelty of its idea had worn off by episode 4, it became clear just how irritating the new American characters were (especially belligerent dickhead Rex Matheson), they made the godawful mistake of trying to make audiences sympathise with a child-killing paedophile (then had no idea what to do with Bill Pullman's slimy character halfway through), dandy hero Jack Harkness had nothing to do until two-thirds into the story, Gwen Cooper was as irksomely forthright as ever, there were no aliens, and the ultimate explanation for the titular "miracle" was extremely silly and vaguely explained. I can't think of any other show that so spectacularly flopped after such a previous high (although Children Of Earth is somewhat overrated). It even made committed fans fall out of love with the show! I don't think anyone would care if Torchwood never came back now, as Miracle Day appeared to kill a promising franchise. How ironic. (review archive) STARZ/ BBC1

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Review: THE ROYAL BODYGUARD (BBC1)




Spare a thought for David Jason this Christmas. A national treasure to generations of Brits, he's only really had occasional Only Fools & Horses specials and A Touch Of Frost to keep his light shining over the past 15 years. Now 71 years old, following the mutually-agreed decision to end Frost, and the untimely death of Only Fools writer John Sullivan making a reprise of Del Boy very unlikely, what does he do next? I certainly wasn't expecting a physical comedy in the tradition of Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau and Rowan Atkinson's Mr Bean, but that's what we got with The Royal Bodyguard. It sounds like fun on paper, but with a flat script and poor direction, together with the silliness of expecting a septuagenarian to bounce around the screen like a man half his age, this was a really painful experience.

Guy Hubbel (David Jason) is the well-meaning but incompetent bodyguard in question, appointed by Her Majesty The Queen after saving her from a runaway horse-drawn carriage fiasco he caused by popping an empty crisp packet. In this pilot he's assigned to protect the monarch during her appearance at a Commonwealth Conference in Scotland, where an assassination is expected by the intelligence services. Cue lots of farcical sequences, with Hubbel attacking empty suits of armour (looking for snipers), crashing through ceilings, hanging off a balcony, accidentally scaring an ambassador's wife, trying to eat a lobster, and being the unwitting target of a beautiful Slav thief who aims to steal his security pass.

Hubbel blunders through everything he does (while trying to maintain an air of cool authority), making everyone he comes into contact with doubt his skills, particularly despairing boss Colonel Whittington (Geoffrey Whitehead), until he accidentally saves The Queen from an assassin's bullet and becomes the hero yet again. It's safe, comfortable, predictable, silly entertainment that all the family can sit down and watch together. I don't have a problem with the basic intentions of this comedy, nor have any axe to grind about why David Jason would want to get back to amusing families, but so much of The Royal Bodyguard felt so outdated and daft it became insufferable to me. The idea has merit, but why is a 71-year-old playing a high-profile bodyguard, when it makes more sense to employ someone in their thirties of forties? Jason dyes his hair once again, but that's not really enough to make this feel plausible. The show needs someone like Lee Evans for this kind of grand physicality. Jason's reached the age where it's not funny to see him in a vest and sock suspenders trying to woo a woman in her twenties, it's instead slightly uncomfortable.

But that's from my perspective. It's very possible the under-10s will find an accident-prone "granddad" figure very amusing, and people over-60 may appreciate a comedy starring an older person that doesn't contain swearing or risqué gags. It's old-fashioned slapstick with a famous actor, clearly enjoying a return to knockabout comedy. I just don't think David Jason's the next Norman Wisdom (even if he did star in one of the greatest TV slapstick moments ever), and I have my doubts about how long a sitcom with this narrow premise can last. If every episode is essentially Hubbel protecting various royals from assassinations, in different locations and situations, won't that get old very quickly? After just one episode, I've seen enough, making me think The Royal Bodyguard should probably have been a 90-minute special instead of the opening salvo of a six-part series.

Overall, The Royal Bodyguard will likely appeal to people I don't have anything in common with, in the same way The Last Of The Summer Wine entertained a certain demographic for years after it stopped being funny to most people. Maybe this sitcom will improve if the stories become more interesting and original, but I can't see it happening. If you're one of those people with a rose-tinted view of how great comedy was back when Michael Crawford was flailing around our screens as Frank Spencer, you may laugh at this. But speaking as someone who's a big fan of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, A Shot In The Dark, and early Mr Bean's, this came across as a bland version of a concept that could have worked with sharper writing and directing.

written & directed by Mark Bussell & Justin Sbresni / 26 December 2011 / BBC One

DOCTOR WHO – "The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe"




Well, the wardrobe was irrelevant and only mentioned so stupid people will notice the whiff of Narnia about this Christmas special. Festive editions of Doctor Who are a modern TV tradition that have become the BBC's crown jewel of Christmas programming, but they can also be rather frustrating episodes because they're written to appeal to casual viewers who find themselves watching Doctor Who with their extended families and a plate of turkey sandwiches. After almost 50 years on our screens, there's thankfully no need for exposition, but most of the seasonal specials are very broad, terribly sentimental and rather silly. That's not actually a failing, because it's exactly what most people want to watch by 7pm, but it does mean these episodes rarely come close to the best of the regular series.

"The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe" spent half its time trying to encourage excitement and enchantment from a situation that felt curiously unimaginative (certainly compared to last year's ambitious special), with guest characters among the thinnest of any yuletide adventure yet. After The Doctor (Matt Smith) taught impressionable children you can breathe in the freezing vacuum of space--during an orbital action sequence designed to be thrilling that just felt awkward--the jettisoned Doctor choose to repay the kindness of a recently-widowed mother called Madge (Claire Skinner) who helped him to his earthbound TARDIS.

Reappearing three years later during World War II, following the recent death of Madge's husband Reg (Alexander Armstrong) while flying a Lancaster Bomber on a wartime mission, The Doctor resolved to give Madge and her half-orphaned kids Cyril (Maurice Cole) and Lily (Holly Earl) the best Christmas ever inside a mansion he's redecorated in characteristically eccentric fashion. Unfortunately, curious young Cyril crawled through portal to an alien world The Doctor had left under their Christmas tree as a surprise, and was lost in a snowy wonderland that contained a hollow lighthouse with imposing wooden figures inside. The Doctor and Lily were soon in hot pursuit of the missing boy, themselves followed by the worried Madge...

This episode wasn't much beyond a simple lark, although the protracted ending found a way to resolve matters in a way that shamelessly tugged at several heart-strings. It wasn't quite enough to rescue this episode completely, but the environmental message was appreciated (the forest itself being evacuated by sentient trees, just like our 1940s family post-Blitz), and the way story's happy ending meant the story wisely ended on a high-note. The dénouement with The Doctor returning to visit companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), two years after their last adventure together, was also surprisingly moving—mainly because of the clever callback to The Doctor being surprised by the human ability to cry when happy, only to find a tear in his eye after being invited in for Christmas dinner by the Pond's. Beautifully done.

Overall, knowing how the show's Christmas specials target the simpler demands of an even broader family audience, and the obvious desire to be largely upbeat and celebratory, "The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe" mostly achieved its aims. It certainly improved as it went along, which is always the best curve to watch unfold over any hour of storytelling.

Asides

  • "Human-wumany"? Look, "timey-wimey" was amusing and a very catchy way to offhandedly explain all manner of complex matters pertaining to time-travel on the show, but the joke's gone far enough now. It just makes The Doctor sound infantile.
  • Anyone else wonder how Madge and The Doctor could hear other in that scene where The Doctor's inside a lighthouse and Madge is approaching the structure from inside a giant harvester's cockpit?
  • Have I understood this right? The sentient forest's evacuation plan rested on them finding another species entirely, who was capable of hosting their combined "souls" and helping them escape through a time vortex they somehow built? Well, that was a long shot that paid off!
  • This is comedian Alexander Armstrong's first on-screen appearance in Doctor Who, but he's previously provided the voice for computer "Mr Smith" in The Sarah Jane Adventures.
  • This episode marks the Who debut of director Farren Blackburn, who was recently working on BBC Three's supernatural teen horror The Fades.
  • The Doctor recognized an "Androzani harvester", which must come from Androzani Major—a planet seen in the fifth Doctor serial "The Caves Of Andronzani".
  • There was no "Coming Soon" trailer tagged to the end of this special, which has previously only happened with "The Next Doctor" and "The End Of Time" specials. In all cases, this is because the schedule for the next series doesn't allow for them to have filmed any episodes yet. Production on series 7 actually begins in February 2012 for an autumn run that may be split into the first-quarter of 2013.
written by Steven Moffat / directed by Farren Blackburn / 25 December 2011 / BBC One

Monday, 26 December 2011

New Year TV Picks: 26 December 2011 – 1 January 2012 (The Borrowers, Angelos Neil Epithemiou Show, Great Expectations, Poirot, The Royal Bodyguard, Sherlock, Treasure Island, Top Gear, etc.)

Pick of the Week: SHERLOCK - BBC1, Sunday, 8.10PM

BOXING DAY
Jim'll Fix It with Shane Richie (BB1, 5.40pm) Festive revival of the classic TV show, making people's dreams come true.
PICK OF THE DAY The Borrowers (BBC1, 7.30pm) Family adventure based on the classic children's stories about tiny people living under the floorboards. Starring Stephen Fry, Victoria Wood, Christopher Eccleston, Sharon Horgan & Robert Sheehan.
The Unforgettable... (ITV1, 7.30pm) Comedy profile of Ernie Wise.
Poirot: The Clocks (ITV1, 9pm) Murder-mystery drama. Starring David Suchet.
The Most Annoying People 2011 (BBC3, 9pm) Self-explanatory countdown.
Bear's Wild Weekend with Miranda (Channel 4, 9pm) The survivalist is accompanied by comedian Miranda Hart in the Swiss Alps.
The Royal Bodyguard (ITV1, 9.30pm) Sitcom about an ex-guardsman who becomes the head of royal security by accident. Stars David Jason.
Mrs Brown's Boys (BBC1, 10pm) Christmas special of the sitcom.
Chris Moyles' Christmas Quiz Night (Channel 4, 10pm) Festive edition of the comedy quiz, with guests James Corden, Louie Spence & Olly Murs.


TUESDAY 27th
You Have Been Watching... David Croft (BBC2, 8pm) Profile of the legendary comedy writer, who died recently, and was behind such classics as Dad's Army, 'Allo 'Allo & Hi-De-Hi.
PICK OF THE DAY Great Expectations (BBC1, 9pm) Adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic. Starring Gillian Anderson, David Suchet & Ray Winstone. Continues tomorrow, concludes Thursday. (1/3)
Three Men Go To New England (BBC2, 9pm) Return of the occasional series, with comedians Dara O'Briain, Rory McGrath and Griff Rhys Jones travelling with a birthday flotilla to celebrate the 125th birthday of the Statue of Liberty.
Fast Freddie, The Widow & Me (ITV1, 9pm) Drama about a rich car salesman doing community service with impoverished children. Starring Laurence Fox & Sarah Smart.
The Big Fat Quiz Of The Year 2011 (Channel 4, 9pm) Return of the annual comedy quiz, hosted by Jimmy Carr, with guests Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand, Simon Pegg, Noel Fiedling David Mitchell, Alan Carr & Ruth Jones.
I've Never Seen Star Wars (BBC2, 10.30pm) Series 2 of the comedy series where celebrities discuss the embarrassing gaps in their personal experiences of life. Hosted by Jo Brand, with guest Stephen Fry.


WEDNESDAY 28th
Frozen Planet (BBC1, 7pm) Highlights of the wildlife series.
Sir Jimmy Savile At The BBC: How's About That Then? (BBC2, 7pm) Tribute to the radio/TV legend who died recently.
PICK OF THE DAY Top Gear Christmas Special 2011 (BBC2, 8pm) Special episode where the trio travel across India.
Ad Of The Year (ITV1, 8pm) A look the best of this year's adverts.
Jon Snow's 2011 (Channel 4, 8pm) Retrospective on the year's news.
It'll Be Alright On The Night (ITV1, 9pm) Return of the outtakes show. Hosted by Griff Rhys Jones. Continues Saturday. (1/2)
The Untold Tommy Cooper (Channel 4, 9pm) Special episode looking at the life of popular comedian Tommy Cooper.
Ben Hur (Five, 9pm) Adaptation of the Biblical adventure story.
Felix & Murdo (Channel 4, 10.35pm) Comedy about two untrained athletes in the 1908 London Olympics. Starring Alexander Armstrong & Ben Miller.
The Best Of The Armstrong & Miller Show (Channel 4, 11.10pm) A look back at the comedian's popular '90s sketch show.

THURSDAY 29th
That Was 2011: The ITV Review Of The Year (ITV1, 7.30pm) Retrospective on 2011's key events.
Earthflight (BBC1, 8pm) Documentary offering aerial views of some of the planet's greatest natural wonders.
Dragons' Den (BBC2, 8pm) Special profile of new millionaire dragon Hilary Devey.
QI (BBC2, 9pm) Festive special of the comedy panel show.
PICK OF THE DAY Paddy's 2011 Show & Telly (ITV1, 9pm) Comedy TV quiz show. Hosted by Paddy McGuinness.

FRIDAY 30th
The Many Faces Of Dame Judy Dench (BBC2, 8pm) Documentary on the actress's stage/TV/film career.
Mrs Dickens' Family Christmas (BBC2, 9pm) Documentary on Charles Dickens, from the perspective of his wife. Presented by Sue Perkins.
A Royal Year To Remember (ITV1, 9pm) Documentary on this year's Royal Wedding.
The Angelos Neil Epithemiou Show (Channel 4, 9pm) Comedy chat show, presented by the ex-Shooting Stars character.
The Most Shocking Celebrity Moments 2011 (Five, 9pm) Self-explanatory.
Tweets Of The Year (ITV2, 10.15pm) A look at the past year via celebrity tweets on Twitter. Narrated by Russell Kane.
PICK OF THE DAY Charlie Brooker's 2011 Screenwipe (BBC4, 10.30pm) Retrospective of the year's TV output from satirist Charlie Brooker.

NEW YEAR'S EVE
It'll Be Alright On The Night (ITV1, 9pm) More from the outtakes show. Hosted by Griff Rhys Jones. (2/2)
PICK OF THE DAY Alan Carr's New Year (Channel 4, 9pm) New Year's Eve party with Alan Carr. Guests are Kirstie Allsopp, Jonathan Ross, Micky Flanagan, Melanie Sykes, Gok Wan, Bruno Tonioli, Alesha Dixon, Olly Murs, Rachel Riley, Paddy McGuinness, and others.

NEW YEAR'S DAY
Come Dine With Me (Channel 4, 7pm) Return of the culinary gameshow.
Treasure Island (Sky1, 7pm) Drama adaptation of the classic swashbuckling novel. Starring Eddie Izzard, Philip Glenister, Elijah Wood, Rupert Penry-Jones & Donald Sutherland. Concludes tomorrow. (1/2)
Great Barrier Reef (BBC2, 8pm) Monty Hall explores the natural wonder.
The Hotel (Channel 4, pm) Return of the fly-on-the-wall documentary series.
PICK OF THE DAY Sherlock (BBC1, 8.10pm) Series 2 of the Sherlock Holmes modern update. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch & Martin Freeman. (1/3)
A History Of Ancient Britain Special (BBC2, 9pm) Documentary about a 5,000-year old temple in Orkney. Presented by Neil Oliver.
Absolutely Fabulous (BBC21, 9.40pm) Second special of the '90s sitcom. (2/3)
Hacks (Channel 4, 10pm) Satirical drama based on this year's newspaper scandal. Starring Alexander Armstrong, Michael Kitchen, Celia Imrie, Phil Davies, Claire Foy & Russ Abbott.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

MERLIN, 4.13 – "The Sword In The Stone: Part Two"




Essentially a season 3 finale redux, only with less magic, "The Sword In The Stone: Part Two" was at least a better redo, if tarnished by a feeling of déjà vu. Thankfully, I no longer expect Merlin do something totally original, as the show's been recycling its own ideas for the past few years, albeit with more eagerness to push forward with the Arthurian myth it's re-imagining.

This conclusion was a strong episode that contained enough effective beats and mythology progression to leave me feeling satisfied, although closer analysis brings some its failures into sharper focus. It was a wonderful moment when Agravaine (Nathaniel Parker) got a first-hand taste of Merlin's (Colin Morgan) magic, and the chance to marvel at a superior court infiltrator, but to be killed with one of Merlin's tedious "air pushes" made for a sorely disappointing demise. It put the blood of a main character on Merlin's hands, but the effects of that was wasn't actually explored to any extent afterwards. Did Arthur even know his uncle had been killed? Considering Agravaine was arguably a more important villain than Morgana (Katie McGrath) this year, and certainly more prevalent, I think we deserved a scene where Arthur and Agravaine came face-to-face and put across their opposing views. I'm still not entirely sure why Agravaine would prefer someone like Morgana on the throne over Arthur, anyway, as he would have exactly the same role to play regardless of who's the reigning monarch.

Most of the story was a case of moving us to some obvious goals, and there was only one scene that stood out from the crowd before Camelot was retaken by force: Merlin boosting Arthur's flagging self-confidence by telling him a false "Sword In The Stone" legend, then getting him to extract Excalibur from a rock he'd embedded it in last year, while watched by many subjects in a woodland clearing. It made for a genuinely spine-tingling moment, mainly because of its significance in the legend, although I was a little concerned it was ultimately a trick by Merlin—who allowed Arthur to withdraw the sword using magic. In some ways that deflated the scene, as it would have been preferable if Merlin had simply cast a spell on the rock to only give up its prize to a wielder was of pure heart.

I also have no idea why Merlin had to transform into his "old man" disguise to place an enchanted straw crucifix under Morgana's bed, other than because series 4 had setup the idea that Morgana is terrified of "Emeris" and the finale had to play into her nightmare. It just didn't feel like a worthwhile continuation of that little idea, however, although the series obviously leaves things open for future Morgana vs Emeris antagonism. The notable thing about the finale was the state it's set for series 5; Gwen (Angel Coulby) and Arthur reconciled and married, while the fleeing Morgana will presumably have a magical ally in the White Dragon "Aithusa" that was born awhile back. No doubt we're headed towards a symbolic dragon-et-dragon aerial battle next year (ready your flame-throwers, crew), although the prospect of Morgana taking interminable advice from another anthropomorphic beast isn't one I'm looking forward to. I had my fill in series 1 and 2. I'd have preferred the return of a teenage Mordred, to be honest—played by a different actor than Asa Butterfield, who's fast-becoming a Hollywood star thanks to Martin Scorsese's Hugo.

Overall, this wasn't a scintillating end to series 4, but it was an enjoyable one that has me intrigued to see where series 5 takes things. Despite some misgivings here and there, this year was an improvement over series 3 in many ways, and certainly gave us the show's best hours in terms of production quality. The 35mm film stock, cleaner-looking CGI, extra location shooting, and better lighting really gave the show a cinematic look it's never come close to before. So on a visual level, Merlin was a lovely treat this year. And considering where we started in the premiere, enough big things happened to leave me happy with the direction the show's taking (from King Uther's death to Arthur's marriage). I think the problem is how Merlin feels somewhat condemned to retell this myth in broad strokes, so it's largely very predictable and few of its unique wrinkles are better than the traditional legend. It's done a fairly poor job with the Lady Of The Lake and Mordred, if you ask me, and the approach taken with the Lancelot/Gwen/Arthur love-triangle didn't work too well either. The Sword In The Stone setup and pay-off has felt much better, perhaps because it's notably closer to the traditional story.

Still, Merlin will definitely return next year (most likely September) and I'm not against that fact.

Asides

  • Merlin has another magical power: the ability to find a handy dragon-sized clearing wherever he goes.
  • I don't often commend the directing on Merlin, but I really loved the transitional cut Alice Troughton did going from the straw crucifix under Morgana's bed to Arthur snapping his fingers in front of Merlin's face the next morning. The way the ominous music was cut by the quick finger snap worked really nicely.
  • It's Gwen vs Morgana! In a sword fight to the death using the choreography of a primary school Peter Pan production.
  • I told you Tristan and Isolde wouldn't amount to much, beyond vocalise how wonderful Arthur is for a king, and inspire the reunion of Arthur and Gwen in a tragic way, while presenting a bountiful amount of cleavage in Miranda Raison's case.
  • I'm getting very fed up with Arthur refusing to admit Merlin's his best friend. That's one aspect of the show it's been a real puzzle to understand. On the one hand it wants to develop, but it very rarely has Arthur interacting with Merlin the way he really should be after four years together. Why is it so hard for the writers to start writing them as more of an obvious double-act who really get on. The squabbling brothers vibe was cute, but it's getting stale now.
written by Julian Jones / directed by Alice Troughton / 24 December 2011 / BBC One

Saturday, 24 December 2011

CHUCK, 5.7 – "Chuck Versus the Santa Suit"




Not a particularly festive offering this year, despite the appearance of the titular Santa suit and some elf costumes, but a wonderful follow-up to season 3's finale where Chuck (Zachary Levi) saved Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) from evil CIA spook Daniel Shaw (Brandon Routh), whom it's revealed has masterminded recent events from his jail cell. Routh's performance wasn't to everyone's taste because he has a tendency to act wooden occasionally, but he's much better playing the straight-forward bad guy. And when you stop to really think about it, Shaw's character and rich history (Sarah killed Shaw's wife when she was a rookie, he was Chuck's love-rival for awhile, he eventually murdered Chuck's father), means he's easily the show's most complex, despicable villain. I had fun with the likes of hammy Volkoff in season 4, but Shaw is less of a Bond villain pastiche, which I prefer, and his return here was handled very well.

The story was ultimately very simple: Shaw escaped from jail after The Omen virus disabled the security, he captured Sarah at Castle (although not with a rather good fight sequence), and held her to ransom with the demand that Chuck deliver a CIA device he needs to activate The Omen virus once it's finished spreading around the world. Chuck naturally had a plan to try and save his wife, which he put into action, but almost every step of the way it was hard to see how Chuck, Casey (Adam Baldwin) and Morgan (Joshua Gomez) could stop Shaw—especially as Shaw still has the only surviving Intersect stuck in his head. (Why did the authorities choose to leave that in the mind of a convicted criminal, knowing they have a means to erase it?)

"Chuck Versus The Santa Suit" boiled down to a high-stakes rescue mission, then, but it was incredibly enjoyable and didn't suffer from any slack or disappointing subplots. The way Jeff (Scott Krinsky) and Lester (Vik Sahay) were involved, bribed to help decode The Omen virus, worked really well, and even Ellie (Sarah Lancaster) got a lovely moment to avenge the death of her father. It was also particularly fun to notice the many allusions to Superman II, here—with Chuck the powerless Clark Kent figure, to Shaw's powerful General Zod. Castle even become a kind of Fortress Of Solitude, after Shaw lowered the temperature to sub-zero, and Chuck ultimately defeated Shaw by tricking him into removing his own super-powers—which was very much how Superman II played out. The fact Routh once played Superman probably factored into writer Amanda Kate Shuman's thinking here, and it's great when Chuck finds way to pay homage to some "geek classics" without being so on-the-nose about it.

Ultimately, episodes like this work because the villain's good and shared a history with the heroes that hasn't been manufactured just to serve the one episode. As the main story arc of season 3, Shaw's return really meant something here, and having it revealed that Shaw's been pulling strings behind-the-scenes since late-season 4 (even recruiting Decker, by blackmailing him) was a nice touch. And it seems Shaw's role may not be over yet, as the epilogue had him meeting with Sarah from behind bars and alluding to the fact she has a baby. I've always wondered if the show would end with Sarah having a baby with Chuck, but it always felt unlikely they'd somehow put aside so many episodes with Sarah being pregnant on-screen... so revealing that she may already be the mother of a son/daughter from a previous relationship makes sense. I smell an adoption on the horizon before this season's out.

Overall, "... Versus The Santa Suit" was the best episode of season 5 so far, and one of the best 10 episodes of the past few years. I wanted nothing more than Chuck to rediscover itself in the final season (after a largely disappointing fourth year) and that appears to be happening. It's a little disappointing that so many of season 5's fresh changes (Morgan having the Intersect, the gang not being part of the CIA) have all been reneged on by episode 7, but hopefully that won't be too much of a problem going forward. We'll have to see what the remaining episodes bring, before we decide if returning the show to the status quo was a good idea or not. Will the Intersect be back before too long, too? Just don't make Jeff dumb again, please.

Asides

  • A fun cameo from comic-book legend Stan Lee, playing himself, who's revealed to be a CIA agent. That joke reminds me of Men In Black, which likewise had celebrities as undercover agents.
  • Subway. The only produce placement I can stand to bear on American shows, knowing the support they've given Chuck financially.
written by Amanda Kate Shuman / directed by Peter Lauer / 23 December 2011 / NBC

Friday, 23 December 2011

State of the Blog: Merry Christmas


There hasn't been an official Christmas break for Dan's Media Digest this year, but there's naturally less to write about now, unless I'm inspired to review some one-off festive specials (like The Borrowers). Obviously I'll find time to cover this year's Doctor Who Christmas episode and the return of Sherlock on New Year's Day—but otherwise, I'm not sure what's going to be happening until January arrives.

However, it's very likely I'll put together a Most Disappointing TV Shows of 2011 list, to bring balance to my recent Best TV Shows of 2011 list. Incidentally, I was very pleased to see that article was so well-received, with many page-hits and dissemination from readers. If you read, commented, and/or spread the word, thank you.

I'm also going to post some New Year's Resolutions, regarding this blog, which will probably mean some notable changes to how I go about things (i.e. what I choose to review, how often reviews are posted, etc.)

Also, get ready for an explosion of new stuff in the New Year, with probable reviews for Treasure Island (Sky1, 1 & 2 Jan), Eternal Law (ITV1, 5 Jan), New Girl (E4, 6 Jan), Alcatraz (Fox, 16 Jan), Being Human (BBC3), Being Human USA (Syfy, 16 Jan), Justified (FX, 17 Jan), Mad Dogs (Sky1, 19 Jan), Touch (Fox, 25 Jan) and Luck (HBO, 29 Jan).

In the meantime, check out Spreading Jam (which listed DMD as one of the hottest blogs to watch in 2012), and be sure to follow me on Twitter if you're not already. Me? In-between stuffing myself with mince pies and turkey sandwiches, I'm having a massive catch-up marathon with Downton Abbey and The Wire season 3.

Any questions, fire away below... and Merry Christmas!

Thursday, 22 December 2011

AMERICAN HORROR STORY, 1.12 – "Afterbirth"




(Warning: major spoilers ahead)

I gave up reviewing American Horror Story a month after it started, but I still kept watching every week. I didn't have much to say about the show weekly, as it's very disorderly and driven almost entirely by clichés, but it became a fascinating train wreck. AHS is the kind of show I enjoy watching on a perverse level, even as  it's making me shake my head in disbelief and laugh in derision, because it had a blasé confidence about itself. After awhile, I grew to rather enjoy most episodes on a shallow level, and a few of the latter-season twists/reveals worked surprisingly well (especially the neat surprise that the Harmon's teenage daughter Violet had been dead weeks). I also really enjoyed Jessica Lange's unhinged performance as peculiar next-door neighbour Constance, and there were some effective scares on occasion. It's just a shame the general story was so chaotic and the central characters to impossible to care about.

Anyway, the finale aired this week, which I watched out of diligence. I was quite pleased by how things wrapped up, too, with the Harmon's all dead and finding a better existence in the afterlife than they ever did in life. The suggestion that they were somehow able to overcome the more sinister ghosts in the house, becoming the dominant force, was also very good, and now they'll act as guardians by preventing any family moving in who wants to have a child (which is exactly what the evil forces of the house latch onto). The final scene, set three years later, with Constance discovering that the Harmon's surviving son (her grandson, whom she's adopted to raise alone) has inherited her son Tate's psychosis also made me chuckle. It's the living you really have to worry about, right? When AHS was being knowingly silly and devious, I could enjoy it a whole lot more than when it was trying to be serious—which is generally whenever Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton were around trying in vain to earn an Emmy, or so it felt.

The best thing I've heard about AHS is showrunner Ryan Murphy's plans for the second season. One question most people asked early on is how the show could possibly tell a "haunted house" story over multiple seasons, but now we know they're avoiding that problem. AHS will actually tell a completely different story next year, with new characters, but it will still involve a "haunting" of some description. Maybe a haunted hotel will be the backdrop, who knows. But that certainly makes me much happier about sticking around for this show, as it can essentially renew itself every dozen episodes. If you don't like what one season did, maybe the next will be more to your taste. Unfortunately, Ryan Murphy's style of excessive nonsense, dumb soap opera plotting, and stealing ideas (even music) from better sources, isn't one that really appeals to me. I much preferred the episodes of AHS he didn't write, particularly those from James Wong (X Files, Millennium) and Tim Minear (Angel, Dollhouse), who had a much better grasp of what a good horror TV shows needs to work. Murphy just spurts out everything he half-remembers working in old movies and TV shows he's seen before, then hopes we'll think he's being post-modern and paying homage to some greats instead of ripping-off people.

So, there may still be problems ahead for AHS unless Ryan Murphy steps down as showrunner (in my eyes), although I'm glad the show hasn't made the grave mistake of trying to keep the Harmon's haunted house saga going indefinitely. It was already feeling stretched at a mere 12 episodes. Hopefully season 2 will be more original and cast lead actors who are a little more fun, as Denis O'Hare and Jessica Lange were this year.

Did you watch AHS this year? If so, what did you think? And what do you make of the unusual decision to give us a new story and characters every season, under the American Horror Story umbrella?

written by Jessica Sharzer / directed by Bradley Buecker / 21 December 2011 / FX