The Tourist is better as a black comedy than an action thriller

Jamie Dornan as the Man in The Tourist. He's wearing a grey t-shirt with a red heart, standing by a petrol pump in the Australian outback.

Watching The Tourist, you get the sense that it maybe wasn’t marketed particularly well.

The six-part thriller is BBC One’s prestige New Year’s Day drama for 2022, debuting in the same slot occupied by shows like The Serpent, Dracula, and Luther in previous years. To all intents and purposes, it was pitched as quite a serious affair – images were released of Jamie Dornan all bearded and brooding, trailers emphasised the intense action that kicks the whole thing off, and the official synopsis described it as “a story of self-discovery with a ticking time-bomb underneath”, full of “shocking, surprising, and brutal turns”.

It comes as a bit of a surprise then that the series is actually really, really funny.

My review of The Tourist for National World. Gotta admit, I wasn’t particularly enthused about this show at first – but it really clicked for me the moment I realised it was funny. Danielle Macdonald as Helen is a particular delight.

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter.

Stay Close is exactly what you’d expect, nothing more or less

Cush Jumbo as Megan Pierce in Harlan Coben's Stay Close. She's wearing a green jumper, using a knife to cut some rope, and looking worried.

As is often the case with crime thrillers like this, Stay Close is about a group of people haunted by their past – a past that’s come rushing forward into the present, threatening to disrupt their comfortable if stagnant suburban lives. Megan Pierce (Cush Jumbo) is a mother of three who reinvented herself seventeen years ago; Mike Broome (James Nesbitt) is a burned-out detective still obsessed with a seventeen-year-old cold-case; Ray Levine (Richard Armitage) is a struggling photographer still reeling from the disappearance of his girlfriend seventeen years earlier. The characters’ lives are, as you’d expect, intertwined, and Stay Close weaves a complex plot as it moves from one thread of its story to the next.

At its most basic level, Stay Close is very watchable. It feels designed to be binged, one episode leading into the next – it’s compelling in the sort of way that makes you want to keep going with it, if not necessarily compelling in the sort of way that you’d remember it in much detail a few months down the line. It’s atmospheric and suspenseful, often tense and dramatic, never quite addictive but certainly gripping: if you liked Safe, you’ll very likely enjoy this too. 

I’ve reviewed the new Harlan Coben Netflix adaptation. It’s pretty much exactly what you’d imagine it to be (albeit with one exception, discussed in the above review) – if you like this sort of thing, it’s worth a watch, but if not, it won’t do much to change your mind about them.

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter.

The 21 Best TV Shows of 2021

7 circles on a pale pink background. Each circle represents a different TV show, and has a different colour hue: red (It's A Sin), orange (Stath Lets Flats), yellow (For All Mankind), green (Succession), blue (Superstore), purple (What We Do in the Shadows), and black & white (Landscapers).

“Best” can be a bit of a tricky word, especially when it comes to ranking something creative like a television programme. A ranked list suggests something quantifiable or easily measured, but “best” is often anything but.

In this particular context, it means something between greatest, most memorable, and often simply personal favourite. It’s necessarily quite a specific list, and in some ways a limited one: it doesn’t include popular shows like Squid Game, The White Lotus, The Underground Railroad, or Maid, because in each case I didn’t quite get around to watching them.

So, with all that established: here are the twenty-one best television shows of 2021.

I was planning on writing my year-end list as a series of articles, ten pieces on the ten different shows, shared daily through December – admittedly, that was massively optimistic from the outset, something I’ve tried and failed to do for a few years running now, but it just went totally out the window the moment I started the NationalWorld job.

Instead, I wrote this Top 21 piece (funny numbers like 21 rather than normal ones like 10 do better for clicks, it turns out), with a couple of hundred words about each show listed – which is quite fun in its own way too! I’ve never done a list this long before, so it was nice to be able to celebrate some other stuff that I really enjoyed, but wouldn’t have quite made the top ten.

(While I was still planning the Top Ten pieces, I did write a Special Mentions and Runners Up post, which I’ll upload soon as well as a little counterpart to this. And eventually I’ll do my movies list as well – late December proved surprisingly hectic, so I’m quite behind on a lot of the customary end-of-year stuff.)

Related:

Best of 2020 | My Top 10 TV series of the year

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter.

The Book of Boba Fett shows some early promise but very little ambition

Boba Fett (Temuera Morrison), holding his helmet in one hand, stands next to Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen). They're stood on a Tattooine street, looking around them.

For the most part, Boba Fett is something of a cypher: that sense of mystery, married to some distinctive costume design, makes it easy to project different things onto the character. Beyond the iconography, though, there’s not actually much substance to Boba Fett, and many Star Wars fans resisted George Lucas’ attempts to add to the character in the prequel trilogy (though, in fairness, “Star Wars fans resisted something” is not exactly unique to Boba Fett). Previous Disney+ Star Wars series The Mandalorian seemed to have found an answer to the Boba Fett problem – in borrowing that iconography, taking the cool costume and applying it to an actual character, they’d seemingly opened up the potential of the idea without having to address the simplicity of the character.

The question The Book of Boba Fett has to answer, then, is why? Is this character one worth building a television series around – particularly given there’s already a very popular Star Wars spinoff about a bounty hunter with a moral code and a shiny helmet? Is there something substantially new here, or is The Book of Boba Fett content to offer only the dim thrill of recognition and not much else?

I could never get into The Mandalorian particularly, and I rolled my eyes a bit when this was announced, but I enjoyed this more than I thought I would really. (I do wonder if maybe part of that is because I’ve never been particularly fussed by Boba Fett – reaction so far seems to have been negative, perhaps because the show is having to swim against the tide in terms of who and what people think Boba Fett should be?)

Anyway, here is my theory or expectation for the rest of the series: as the split timelines catch up to one another (structurally this show reminds me a lot of Arrow, incidentally), we learn a lot about Boba Fett’s time with the Tusken Raiders, and realise how much that’s influenced him in the present. The main reason he’s taken over Jabba’s empire is to pay off a debt to them – he’s planning to (intentionally very loaded word here) “liberate” the Tusken Raiders.

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter.

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: A Christmas Carol

doctor who christmas carol review steven moffat toby haynes michael gambon katherine jenkins matt smith

Halfway out of the dark.

A Christmas Carol is comfortably the best Doctor Who Christmas special.

Which isn’t really a controversial thing to say, of course. It’s been the consensus choice for best Christmas special since it aired – smack bang in the middle of that fantastic run of Toby Haynes directed episodes, probably the popular height of the Matt Smith era and a genuine contender for best consecutive run of Doctor Who stories full stop – and few of the specials that followed it have impressed anywhere near as much. (I’m quite fond of a lot of them, and I think Last Christmas probably comes quite close to A Christmas Carol, but still, there’s an obvious winner.)

Part of that is because it’s adapting what is essentially the Christmas story: in terms of sheer, impossible to quantify ‘Christmassyness’, A Christmas Carol is always going to win out. Certainly more than something like The Runaway Bride or The Return of Doctor Mysterio, neither of which are massively Christmassy – there’s a lot of them that treat it as just a fairly superficial aesthetic gloss, but it’s right at the heart of A Christmas Carol. (I’ve always been a little dubious of “they ran out of Christmas stories” as a reason for the move to New Year’s Day – especially because it feels like Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor would be so well-suited to the whimsy and sentiment of Christmas – but equally, once you’ve done A Christmas Carol you’ve used the best idea, so maybe that move was just a case of the schedules catching up to something that’d been obvious for some time.)

There’s also that brilliant central conceit, though, that this isn’t just Doctor Who doing A Christmas Carol – it’s explicitly, textually, the Doctor taking inspiration from Charles Dickens. It gives the whole thing an extra knowing edge, that level of self-awareness about what it’s doing; A Christmas Carol assumes its audience is going to know A Christmas Carol already, that people will notice and understand the way the story is being mimicked and where it’s being subverted. Genuinely, one of the smartest things Steven Moffat has ever written in Doctor Who is the Ghost of Christmas Future bit here – not Kazran seeing his grave, but bringing the Young Kazran forward to see the current Kazran, so almost his father. That’s fantastic, both on its own terms and in how it uses Doctor Who’s format to reshape the Dickens novel.

doctor-who-christmas-carol-review-michael-gambon-kazran-sardick

A Christmas Carol takes a great deal of care with its character writing, too. It’d be easy – given how familiar everyone will be with A Christmas Carol, a story that’s been repeated and retold and rearranged so many times – to coast on that idea of Scrooge that exists in the public imagination. The archetype is so well-defined that you could just leave it as a sketch and the episode would still work, I suspect, just the most basic shape of a Scrooge left to be filled in by Michael Gambon’s performance.

(Which is of course fantastic, incidentally. It’s a neat bit of stunt-casting for the series – particularly given how Harry Potter seems to have become, if not a Christmas staple, then certainly the sort of half-watched background radiation on ITV2 like disaster movies or Bond films – but a great performance full stop first and foremost. Gambon does some really clever, nuanced work here, especially impressive given that so much of what he’s performing doesn’t actually map onto any real-life emotions: he’s taking a sci-fi contrivance and breathing life into it, really selling the idea that he can feel his life and history changing around him.)

But the episode goes to great lengths to make sure the character writing does stand on its own terms, beyond just the Dickens riff. One of the smartest bits of the episode is that the Doctor’s meddling ultimately doesn’t change much – the realisation that Abigail is ill and that his time with her is limited (and that bitterness that develops at the Doctor in turn, Kazran believing that the Doctor had offered him a vision of a particular life only to take it away again) still sends Kazran down the same path. It’s the reunion with Abigail (in a simple but undeniably effective performance from Katherine Jenkins in her first ever screen role) that makes the difference in the end. The Doctor offers the opportunity for the change, but it’s the human element that makes the difference. There’s a really nice sense of A Christmas Carol – which is true of the original too, but anyway – that the whole thing is about watching Kazran healing, stepping out of his father’s shadow and building genuine human connections, however brief they might ultimately be.

doctor-who-christmas-carol-review-abigail-pettigrew-katherine-jenkins-michael-gambon-kazran-sardick

It’s interesting to consider this episode in its original context again. A Christmas Carol was the fifteenth episode of Doctor Who in 2010, and it aired not even a full year after David Tennant’s regeneration in The End of Time. But if you put the two episodes together, it’s like night and day – you’d be forgiven, really, for assuming they were two different programmes entirely.

A Christmas Carol is entirely unlike anything Russell T Davies ever did, or ever would, write for the series; Matt Smith’s performance here is entirely unlike anything that David Tennant would have done in the part either. The pair of them own the show now – they have for ages, by this point (since fish fingers and custard, really) but this is probably the first time they really realised it themselves. The whole episode moves with a sense of confidence and grace, properly comfortable in itself and what it’s doing in a way their previous episodes often weren’t. (The Eleventh Hour is absolute brilliant, but there’s bits where you can almost feel the panic.) This was the first episode to be produced after any of Series 5 had actually been broadcast, at a point when they really genuinely knew that what they were doing worked; after how frantic (in the best way) Series 5 sometimes felt, and how ambitious Series 6 is about to become, there’s a sense that A Christmas Carol is almost a pause to take a breath.

Taken that way, this episode isn’t just an achievement in itself, but something that underlines and emphasises everything Moffat and Smith had managed over the previous year. It makes it all the more impressive really; after a complete and total reinvention of Doctor Who (the first of the new series, really), they very casually came along and did the best Christmas special the show has ever done. Still never bettered!

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Around the World in 80 Days (2021) is a stylish retelling of a familiar classic

Promotional image for Around the World in 80 Days (2021). Passepartout (Ibrahim Koma), Phileas Fogg (David Tennant), and Abigail Fix (Leonie Benesch) all stand atop a cloudy globe, looking ready for adventure.

Around the World in 80 Days is an uncomplicated but confident adaptation of the original Jules Verne novel, one that answers the question “is it worth doing this again?” with a resounding “yes, if you do it this well.”

It starts with a wager in a private club, as this story always does: Phileas Fogg (David Tennant) bets another member of the Reform Club that it’s possible to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days, and then sets out to prove it. He’s joined by Passepartout (Ibrahim Koma), a waiter looking for a quick way out of London but doesn’t expect the journey to last much longer than that, as well as Abigail ‘Fix’ Fortescue (Leonie Benesch), a journalist determined to carve out a name for herself and thinks that chronicling Fogg’s travels is the best way to do that.

Their voyage takes them from France to India to America, and it’s easy to appreciate Around the World in 80 Days’ episodic format. With a new location and guest cast each week, and a sense that the characters are developing and changing with each new situation they find themselves in, it’s a welcome reprieve from the “eight-hour movie” format that’s increasingly dominating television. (It’s not difficult to imagine, say, a Netflix adaptation of the Jules Verne novel that ends rather than begins with Fogg setting out on his voyage.) Around the World in 80 Days is a television series that knows it’s a television series, one that both understands and is able to take advantage of the strengths of its medium – it sounds like a simple thing to remark on but it’s not, and it adds to that sense of this show as being a particularly confidently made piece.

Really, really loved this show – it was just a properly huge amount of fun. (It also, after a few years of slightly lacklustre efforts from Chris Chibnall, has quite a nice “not quite but almost Doctor Who” quality to it, which I get into a bit in the review.)

Quite looking forward to the second series!

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter.

A Very British Scandal’s script can’t live up to Claire Foy’s performance

The Duchess of Argyll (Claire Foy) sat on a wooden bench in court. She's wearing a grey/silver coat with a big collar, a matching hat, and a three strand pearl necklace. Her eyes are a piercing blue. Behind her sits an out-of-focus lawyer, wearing a powdered wig.

A Very British Scandal charts the burgeoning relationship and eventual deeply hostile divorce between Ian (Paul Bettany) and Margaret Campbell (Claire Foy), the Duke and Duchess of Argyll. The divorce itself was one of the most heavily publicised of the 20th century, attracting fervent media attention because of both its novelty and its salaciousness: the Duke accused his wife of adultery and insisted that the Duchess had had relations with as many as 88 other men.

As evidence – and the chief reason why Argyll v Argyll lodged so firmly in the public imagination, notorious then and remembered now – the Duke presented intimate polaroids of the Duchess with another man, stolen from her Mayfair home. (In real-life, Campbell hired a locksmith to acquire the photos, though in writer Sarah Phelps’ account he breaks in himself.) Crucially, the other man couldn’t be identified from the photo, prompting waves of speculation as to who he might be; potential candidates included movie stars and prominent politicians, which served only to heighten the level of popular interest in the Argyll divorce.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise the already acrimonious Argyll divorce presented itself as a potential follow up to 2018’s A Very English Scandal. Comparisons between the two often largely aren’t particularly useful – though nominally an anthology, it’s clearly a very loose one, and the two dramas share little in terms of style and tone. Where the earlier series was irreverent, this one is austere, leaving Sarah Phelps’ sequel to Russell T Davies’ series feeling very distinctly its own piece. Both however are about shame and sexuality, and those shared themes tie the two together.

I wasn’t particularly impressed by A Very British Scandal – perhaps in part because it was so obviously weaker than its predecessor, perhaps because of deep-seated flaws when taken on its own terms. In any case, I was never quite convinced that the Argyll divorce was a story worth dramatising, as I explain above.

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter.

Film Review | Being the Ricardos (2021)

Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) looks into Desi Arnaz's (Javier Bardem) eyes, her hands on his shoulders.

There’s always something distant about biopics like Being the Ricardos. Obviously there is; it’s only a reconstruction, after all, and that sort of simulation is always going to position the audience at a certain level of remove. But there’s something about Being the Ricardos in particular that exacerbates that sense, giving the whole film a sort of detached feel throughout.

On one level, that’s surprising. The Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz biopic is both written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, and arguably he’s spent his whole career building to something like this. He’s best known as creator of The West Wing, yes, or writer of films like The Social Network and The Trial of the Chicago 7, but he’s got a long background in comedy too. His first television show was sitcom Sports Night, a workplace comedy about a sports news show, which he later followed with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a comedy-drama about the production of an SNL type show. Even then, The West Wing was always much funnier than it was ever politically incisive anyway – so on the fact of it, Sorkin tackling this story doesn’t not make sense.

But in practice it still doesn’t quite cohere. One common problem with biopics is that they’re too reverent, too starstruck by their subject, but Being the Ricardos seems to suffer the opposite problem. Watching it, it’s hard to tell what Sorkin actually likes about I Love Lucy or its leads – he’s obviously impressed by Ball’s talent as a producer, but it’s less clear that that he actually enjoys the programme she made.

I really like Sorkin as a writer – in terms of style if not content, I suppose – but I wasn’t massively keen on Being the Ricardos. You wonder what it was about this story that made him want to bother particularly; watching it, it’s clearly not any sort of affection or appreciation for Ball as a creative figure.

You can find more of my writing about film here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter

The Girl Before review: Jessica Plummer is the highlight of unsettling JP Delaney drama on BBC One

the girl before bbc one david oyelowo gugu mbatha raw jessica plummer jp delaney

The Girl Before is pitched somewhere between psychological thriller and domestic noir. It’s about two young women, Jane (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Emma (Jessica Plummer), who move into the same house three years apart: the four-part drama unfolds in two halves, tracing their lives and how the house changes them, with Jane slowly realising what happened to previous tenant Emma. There’s something faintly reminiscent of the Bluebeard fable about it, and any retelling of that you might care to name – in this case, though, the house isn’t a gothic castle but a hyperminimalist architectural experiment, closely monitored by its designer and owner Edward Monkford (David Oyelowo).

Monkford insists that anyone living there must follow his strict, exacting rules: no decorations, no mess, no personal items. The house is maintained by what is in effect a sophisticated Alexa type device, which records and archives data about Emma and Jane and their living habits. It enforces Monkford’s rules, too, imposing a different structure on their lives (an electric toothbrush stops working after exactly two minutes, the shower won’t work until they take a short survey, the lights turn out at the same time each night, etc). The technology itself admittedly feels a little far-fetched at times, but that never quite matters as The Girl Before does a good job of convincing on the more important emotional truth of it all, i.e. why these two women (each trying to take control of their life again after recent trauma) would choose to enter such a peculiar living arrangement.

Another review for National World. I wrote this piece after having only seen the first two episodes of The Girl Before; while I was really impressed by the opening installments of the miniseries, the second half left me feeling much cooler on the whole thing. (On the basis of the first two, I thought about including the show in my end-of-year Best of 2021 list – after the last two, it slipped off the rankings entirely.)

I wrote another piece for NationalWorld about The Girl Before, a sort of SEO-driven type thing with introductions to the cast. I’m just linking it here because it’s slightly more substantial than most SEO explainers, with some recommendations as to other projects the leads star in that might be worth checking out – suspect I’ll end up writing that sort of thing a lot, and I won’t give them each their own dedicated blogpost, but I’ll probably link the more worthwhile of them alongside reviews, that sort of thing.

Related:

Inspired by Real Events: The Serpent, The Investigation, and true crime drama

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter.

Succession series 3 review: Kieran Culkin’s best work yet as the comedy-drama finds new depths

succession all the bells say kieran culkin jeremy strong sarah snook brian cox

Going into the third series, the big question was what exactly the fallout to Kendall’s press conference would be, and whether his public accusations would be enough to oust his father. They weren’t, in the end, and in hindsight that shouldn’t be a surprise: Succession is a show where the super-rich will never have to suffer the consequences, and it’s certainly not a show where Logan Roy will ever lose. Of course the Department of Justice Investigation quickly fizzled out; of course Logan Roy handpicked the next President of the United States. That’s the world they live in.

What Succession is good at, though, is exploring new depths within that status quo. Take Roman, for instance, because this third series is Kieran Culkin’s series in the same way the first was Jeremy Strong’s or the second was Sarah Snook’s. Which is to say, it’s not that the show focused on Culkin at the expense of the rest of the cast this year – you only have to look at the career-best work Matthew Macfadyen has been doing week on week to see that it’s not – but rather that they’ve pushed that character further than before. That desperate, strangled appeal to his father – “Love?” – is Culkin’s best performance on the series so far, but it’s not one that’s come from a fundamental change to the character or anything like that. Instead, Succession (much like its characters) takes things to their absolute extreme, and indulges in the possibilities that represents.

A short review of Succession series 3, looking specifically at the season finale All the Bells Say. I’ve really enjoyed Succession this year (as has been the case every year), so it was nice to get an opportunity to write about it.

What’s also particularly notable about this review, though, is that it was my first proper piece of writing for NationalWorld, where I am the new TV and Entertainment Writer! It’s a full-time position, which is pretty neat – the first full-time writing job I’ve ever had, in fact. I’ve got one last freelance piece due to be published, and I’ll still write things for this blog from time to time, but otherwise what that means is that for the foreseeable future all of my writing (reviews, interviews, articles, all sorts) will be housed over at NationalWorld – and that there’s going to be a lot more writing going on too, which is pretty neat.

Nice note to end the year on, really. And, in a neat bit of symmetry, it’s almost six years to the day since my first piece of writing was published over at Yahoo.

Related:

Inspired by Real Events: The Serpent, The Investigation, and true crime drama

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter.