My review of Euphoria season 2 for National World.
Odd show, this. I went back to look at what I said when the first series was airing, almost exactly a million years ago in June 2019, and I had found it basically messy but quite interesting, even pretty good at times. (I did completely fall off it in the end though – took me months and months to watch the finale, and I only got around to the 2020 specials in the past few days – which maybe says a lot about the conclusion I reached in the end.)
For the most part though the second series didn’t quite hit the same notes that I liked about the first series, and really doubled down on the bits that I found least interesting. Bit of a shame, really, because it’s a show that very occasionally shows these flashes of brilliance, and I wish there was a little more of that to it.
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.
“No-one’s said or written a word about him in years. Someone so vain must hate that. He pulls a stunt like this, and the world remembers his name.”
The Serpent, Episode 8
“Maybe it’s because the more civilised we become, the greater is our need to stare into the darkness.”
The Investigation, Episode 6
The Serpent and The Investigation each represent different extremes for true crime fiction. The former, a co-production between BBC One and Netflix, dramatises a series of murders committed by Charles Sobrahj in Southeast Asia during the 1970s; the latter, a piece of Nordic noir broadcast by BBC Four and HBO, depicts the police investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist Kim Wall. They make for interesting comparisons to one another – in part simply for being released in tandem, but largely for all the ways in which each stands as a rejection of the other. Where The Serpent (named for its lead) places a charismatic killer at its centre, The Investigation (named for its process) refuses to feature or even name Kim Wall’s murderer, instead focusing solely on the slow and painstaking work leading to his eventual conviction.
On an immediate level, at least, it’s obvious why The Investigation’s approach holds an appeal. There’s always a certain tension inherent to any true crime project, be it documentary or dramatization – an underlying ethical murkiness, the discomfort that comes from treating real trauma and suffering as a type of entertainment. Arguably dramatization is worse: there’s no academic remove, no pretence made that this might be on some level informative or educational. Instead it’s lurid, even voyeuristic; it’s perhaps a little simplistic to suggest that true crime drama in the vein of The Serpent glorify the killers they centre, but it’s not that simplistic. Actors are hailed for their transformations, glowing profiles are written about how they confronted a darkness within themselves to evoke whichever celebrity murderer they’ve been tasked with portraying – there’s an assumed prestige to it all, a glitz and glamour (look at how much money was clearly spent on The Serpent, look at its prime-time BBC One New Year’s Day slot) that cuts against the inherent griminess that can’t help but pervade. That’s very much the model The Serpent operates in, seemingly almost despite itself: the non-linear structure, skipping back and forth between different perspectives on Sobrahj, is a clever conceit that could offer a route to interrogate his crimes without granting him protagonist status – but the series always returns to Tahar Rahim as Sobrahj, never quite able to break its gaze, forthright about who and what it finds most compelling about this story.
Immediately, obviously, The Investigation seems more respectful – more ethical – than The Serpent. Certainly, it’s clear that Sobrahj is the star of The Serpent, but that’s not the real contrast between them. They’re both true crime fiction, but they’re operating in different modes: The Investigation is a procedural, but The Serpent is a thriller, its dramatic engine predicated entirely on tension and suspense. Cliffhangers are built around capture and escape, the camera lingers on violent images; whatever else The Serpent might be, it’s not trying to be about Sobrahj’s victims in the same way The Investigation aims to be. You get the sense it almost was, or almost could’ve been, about Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) primarily, with Sobrahj a more marginal figure, but it’s as though the fascination with the eponymous killer was too great to ever really leave him. In turn, there’s something that feels almost exploitative about it, as is so often the case with true crime drama.
However, there’s an argument to be made that The Serpent at least is aware of what it is and honest about it, while that The Investigation – for all the praise its received – isn’t, in fact, quite so ethical as it seems. The Investigation doesn’t name Kim Wall’s murderer, quite pointedly so, but it strains to do so: it feels artificial. Worse, it almost feels as though the series is still mythologising him, because it doesn’t eschew the sort of cheap psychoanalysis that typifies the most lurid true crime – the suspect is offscreen, but talk of his serenity, of his temper, of his sex life, doled out via interviews with his friends and colleagues, only serves to position him as a figure of intrigue. (Perhaps notably, most discussion of the series has still focused on the killer, with some reviews affording more detail to describing the brutal crime than engaging with the show itself.) It’s as though The Investigation doesn’t believe in its own premise, leaving that central conceit feeling less like an innovation of the form and more like a marketing gimmick.
More to the point, it’s not like The Investigation isn’t still fundamentally a piece of entertainment built on a trauma. First and foremost, it’s a crime procedural: it’s not really a show about Kim Wall’s parents, who are supporting characters at best, their emotional lives an afterthought in comparison to the painstaking, glacial investigative work that makes up most of the series. Notably, the series approaches Wall’s parents by contrasting them with lead detective Jens Møller (Søren Molling, previously of The Killing and Borgen), framing their loss in terms of his strained home life – which is, reading between the lines, seemingly an invention on part of Tobias Lindholm. (In those moments, The Investigation resembles nothing more than a string of ITV true crime dramas, at this point almost a subgenre unto themselves, which all seem to be made with the same script.) That clichéd dysfunction is the weakest part of the series, and if the only way the series can engage with grief and trauma is through such tired, overwrought stereotypes, can it actually be said to be engaging at all?
The Serpent is the better piece of television, to be clear. It’s not perfect – the first half of the series struggles with glacial pacing, and its non-linear structure is presented in a needlessly confusing fashion that takes a while to get used to – but it’s more engaging than The Investigation ever manages to be, an actual drama series rather than an extended intellectual exercise. The series is well cast (much will be said about Coleman, Howle, and Rahim, and with good reason, but even the supporting roles impress, Amesh Edireweera in particular proving magnetic throughout) and it remains, in spite of itself, very watchable. There’s something to be said, too, for its story of an increasingly desperate, low-level civil servant investigating crimes the local law enforcement had been happy to ignore; it’s a stark contrast from the explicitly pro-policing approach taken by The Investigation. (Which isn’t to suggest that The Serpent is, for lack of a better word, ‘unproblematic’ – the patina of orientalism to its depiction of Southeast Asia makes that clear enough – merely that it offers a more complicated narrative than crime drama tends to, and to note that The Investigation doesn’t necessarily have the straightforward moral clarity it purports to.)
What’s striking about both series, though, and it’s something they share, is the sense that they’re both a little uncomfortable in themselves. The Investigation makes a laughable gesture towards psychoanalysing its audience, suggesting that if one is too happy or secure, they’re drawn to the catharsis of true crime – almost looking to the camera to insist it really is okay to treat a recent murder as ballast for television schedules, in fact not just okay but necessary, as though struck by the sudden insecurity that it might not be enough to just avoid naming the killer. There’s no attempt to understand that on a deeper level, to engage with the sensationalist journalism that drove interest in that particular crime: in the end, The Investigation proves superficial. Meanwhile, The Serpent ends by condemning the attention given to Sobrahj, insisting that he was doing it all for attention – all seemingly without noticing the irony of that insight being offered by this show.
That discomfort raises the question, ultimately, why either series actually exists. There’s a sense that each one stumbles around and just misses being a better programme: if they’d opted to be about something more than just one man (or his absence), if The Investigation put more emphasis on a media circus it only briefly acknowledged and if The Serpent had delved more closely, and more delicately, into the conditions that allowed Sobrahj to thrive. True crime is best when it uses its real-life subject as a lens to interrogate a much broader set of themes – something like The Assassination of Gianni Versace is surely the benchmark here (as well as being one of the few such series that could make a genuine, and convincing, case that it centres the victims). As it is, though, The Serpent and The Investigation taken together don’t just represent different extremes of the true crime genre, but are also a stark demonstration of its limits.
Joseph Quinn! Took a little while to arrange this one, but Joseph was great to talk to when we eventually got around to doing the interview – very polite, which is always a plus, and some great answers too. He, I suspect, is going to have quite a long and interesting career ahead of him.
A few scattered thoughts here on Succession, one of HBO’s latest dramas. (Well, I’m inclined to be difficult and call it a comedy, but still.) What I found quite interesting about Succession is the way that the conversation around it developed, with a lot of people beginning the series, abandoning it, and then returning because of strong word of mouth from those who stuck with it.
That got me thinking a little bit about likeable characters (I’ve been winding myself up a lot about whether or not “likeable” is the correct spelling, and I’m still not wholly sure) and… I called it “the scope of a series”, but what I mean is the amount of time we’re willing to give a programme to unfold and show its full hand. That had been on my mind for a while anyway, ever since I saw a couple of reviews really rip into Genius: Picasso based on its first four episodes, so it was good to get a chance to talk about it.
I’m not, admittedly, entirely sure anything I said made sense, but then I’m never especially sure of that to be honest! I always find the more editorial/opinion esque pieces a little more difficult. Something to work on, I suppose.
An article on Westworld! I’ve got to say, I’ve actually been really enjoying the show – I only caught up on the first series this year, a month or two before the second series began, and found it really compelling.
Unlike a lot of people, though, I quite enjoyed this year’s series as well – particularly for the ideas of change, and of revolution, that it tried to engage with. Hence writing this piece – it took me a little while to work out the right angle for it, and while I was pleased with how it turned out in the end, it is probably split a little too much between two ideas (change in general and revolution in particular) without enough effort to draw the link between them.
In any case, though, I think the article turned out quite well, and I am very much looking forward to Westworld series 3. Roll on… 2020, I suppose.
The above article is not, admittedly, especially good. The main part of my objection to Game of Thrones was, basically, that as I understood it the show had a lot of issues to do with its female characters, chiefly in terms of an overreliance on rape as a plot device. For a couple of reasons, I ended up a little unwilling to actually address that directly, largely talking around the point for five hundred words and leaving it at that. As a result, it’s a bit weak, but also bungles the point entirely – I end up putting “there’s nearly 60 hours of it” on par with “it has massive ethical failings that I would find offensive to watch”, which is, you know, not true, no matter how terrible my attention span is.
The other thing is that, actually, about six months after writing this – probably not even that – I did actually end up watching all of Game of Thrones across the span of two or three weeks. Oops.
I will, I imagine, end up writing about it at some point (I actually took notes while watching it, with the intention of putting together a “117 notes, thoughts and observations I had while watching every episode of Game of Thrones for the first time” type piece, until I realised that brevity is my enemy and that would end up somewhere far in excess of ten thousand words, the sort of length reserved for emails to Alexis rather than Yahoo blog posts I’m paid a pittance for) so I’ll hold off on giving you my full thoughts on the show now. Suffice to say, while it does actually have some good things going for it, pretty much every critique I’d heard vis a vis gender and race and so on was pretty much on the money.
So, even though I’m now more inclined to appreciate the things it does well, I’ve now got a much fuller understanding of the things it does poorly. (Things which, frankly, it is not criticised for even nearly enough.)