Joseph Quinn on Catherine the Great, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and more

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I also think the timelessness of the human condition is quite interesting for the viewer – seeing people in different times and in different environments that are foreign to ours, still going through the same shit that we go through. People get jealous, people get angry, people get depressed, all these things that are attached to what it is to be human.

I think maybe there’s some kind of comfort there [in seeing that] or definitely a kind of fascination. We do [historical drama] better than any other country, I’d say, because we’ve got such a rich history. There’s definitely a need for [historical drama] and I think that we keep turning them out, but I think we’re doing it and doing it well.

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.

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Westworld, and the possibility of change

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Revolution has been a key theme of the second season, of course, following as it does the path of Dolores’ nascent rebellion. A particular throughline has been an interrogation of the morality of revolution, and of oppressed people using violence against their oppressors; it’s telling, for example, when Dolores notes that she’d rather “live with your judgement than die with your sympathy”, rejecting the idea the hosts’ uprising should be bound by the ethics of the humans. At the same time, though, there’s an emphasis on how the revolution needs to create something new, rather than simply invert the old paradigm; Dolores’ rewriting of Teddy, another host, clearly parallels the way Ford would deny Bernard autonomy. No doubt Teddy’s final indictment of Dolores will haunt Westworld moving forward: “What’s the use of surviving if we become just as bad as them?

Certainly, it’s one of the more compelling ideas that Westworld puts forward, and you can see allusions to it throughout; indeed, it’s inherent to the very setting, with the old West having been built on violently displacing Native Americans. (Note also the significance of some of the other ‘worlds’, like the Raj, evocative of ideas of colonialism and imperialism in similar ways.) Granted, it’s not perfect – Westworld still has a predominantly white cast, making its attempts to tell a story about oppression a little dishonest, if nothing else – but the show does put forward some genuinely engaging ideas, independently of its structural games and narrative tricks.

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.

Save Me was a visceral character drama about people driven to extremes

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Immediately, comparisons to a particular tradition of crime drama spring to mind; on paper, it feels as though Save Me shares similarities with programmes like Broadchurch or Kiri, centred as they all are around a child that’s missing or dead. However, Save Me neatly elucidates and overcomes a problem that thus far has seemed endemic to the genre: structured, as these programmes are, around a child that’s always defined by their absence, at times it feels like the characters are responding to the idea of the child moreso than anything else. There’s a distance there, inherently positioning the child at a remove – how much do you ever know Danny Latimer?

Save Me cleverly takes what can be a failing of the genre and builds it into the premise, presenting the series from the perspective of a character who was only ever dimly aware of his daughter anyway. Not only does it remove this potential flaw, it elevates it; the father-daughter relationship at the heart of Save Me genuinely feels like a new addition to the genre, a clear demonstration that there’s still new stories to tell.

I really, really enjoyed Save Me – it was a massively compelling programme. It was certainly much better than I expected; that’s not to say I wasn’t expecting it to be good, but rather that it was of a much higher level than the trailers and such suggested. I was genuinely quite taken with it in the end.

Admittedly, however, I wasn’t particularly pleased with this article I wrote about the show. That’s always frustrating, the feeling that a piece of writing I’ve done didn’t quite serve the show well – something like Save Me deserves a better article than this. My wasn’t quite right; it’s not, I don’t think, a brilliant piece of writing, or even exactly a particularly good one.

At the time I wanted to do a sort of Writer’s Notes type thing, breaking down how I wrote it and what went wrong, though I never quite managed it. There’s a couple of things, I think – part of it is that there was a lot of stuff I wanted to discuss but couldn’t quite work in, like just how good the dialogue was. (There’s a line where Lennie James’ character Nelly is talking about his daughter’s injuries, and describes “claret down her top”, and I’d never heard “claret” used like that in that context. It felt so distinct and idiosyncratic, it just really stayed with me.) Also, though, I think the article is almost in two halves that are sort of fighting one another; it’s a victim, I think, of the fact I didn’t quite have the title in mind when I started, which meant it wasn’t all written around one central point the way it should have been. The first half is about the clever reframing of the missing child format, while the second half is about how Save Me pushes characters to extremes, and the two halves together add up to less than the sum of their parts. (Or whatever the phrase should be.) It ends up scattered and a little unfocused, though there are some good ideas in there – one of the things I tried to do with this article was engage a bit more with the actual camera, and I think I did a decent job of that.

Still! Live and learn. I might try and revisit the first series of Save Me and write a new article on it if and when the second eventually comes out.

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Jamestown and the dynamics of power

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Focusing, as the series does, primarily on three female characters, it’s interesting to note how the series examines gendered portrayals of power. When the series debuted last year, a common critique of Jamestown was that its depiction of women was ahistorical – that, largely speaking, portraying the female characters exercising their own agency was inaccurate. Fealty to history aside, it’s worth noting that that’s not really the point; as with any historical drama, Jamestown is much more about the present than it is the past, depicting as it does still relevant concerns about patriarchal power structures. 

This examination of power and gender is most obvious through the character Jocelyn (Naomi Battrick), a widow who refuses to remarry, and gets increasingly involved with the political machinations of the colony. Marriage, in Jamestown, is an explicit microcosm of the wider confines of the patriarchy; Jocelyn refuses to be “owned, possessed, confined, or determined by wedlock”, in turn arguably exercising the most agency of any character on the programme. Notably, the opening of the final episode draws an implicit parallel between Jocelyn and Governor Yeardley (Jason Flemyng), the ultimate authority at the colony – both dressed in shades of blue, atop their horses, at this point the pair are near equals.

An article I was actually very pleased with, on a show I quite enjoyed. This was actually prompted, in a couple of roundabout ways and in a few more direct ways, by some interviews I did with the cast of Jamestown. I watched the very first episode of Jamestown when it was broadcast, and admittedly didn’t quite like it; there was a sexual assault scene about halfway through, which I was rather dubious of, so I didn’t continue with the show.

However! Ahead of the second series, I was invited to watch a screening of the premiere and interview the cast. I wasn’t going to turn that down, especially since it was going to be the first interview I ever conducted in person, so off I went into London (getting horrendously, embarrassingly lost in the process) for that. Somewhat surprisingly, I actually really enjoyed that episode, and the cast were all lovely – I stuck with the show, having more or less decided on writing this article already, and also having promised Ben Starr I’d write it.

And so, this is the article I ended up with. Meant to tweet it to them all but never did (though Max Beesley, who I didn’t interview but is on the show, came across it independently and said it was great, which was nice) – I’ll try and remember to before the third series.

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Some of the best TV you might have missed in 2017

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One of the things that always stands out to me about year-end ‘best of’ lists is that there are usually quite a few shows that, for whatever reason, I never got the chance to see. What’s nice about that, of course, is that those lists become a set of recommendations for me to work through for the next few months.

But it did get me thinking, though – how about a list specifically to that end? Here are the shows, then, that you might have missed; ones that flew under the radar a little bit, either because of the channel they were on, the language they’re in, or the time of year they came out.

It’s obviously an incomplete list – how could it not be? – but here’s some of the best TV you might have missed in 2017…

The State

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The State took on a controversial and difficult subject matter in a sensitive way – but more than that, it did it at exactly the right time too. A nuanced and considered look at how people are radicalised, it was a compelling drama that drew on extensive research of real-life cases. Intense and emotional, The State explored nuanced storytelling in place of simplistic thinking – always willing to challenge audience’s preconceptions and prejudices, this was a stark and powerful drama.

Clique

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The first episode of Clique was a particularly tense and taut hour of television, crafted with a real precision; it was one of the most effective pieces of drama BBC Three produced in a long time. With an unrelenting intensity, gradually probing the darker aspects of the world it put forward, Clique was an effortlessly self-assured piece of television. Certainly, it’s the sort of programme that might be easy to dismiss at face value; yet another teen drama without a huge amount to offer on its own terms. But to think of it that way it to do a real disservice to the intricate, nuanced work that was going on beneath the surface – there’s a real feeling, watching Clique, that it exists in a world that goes above and beyond the young adult drama you’ve seen before.

Ronny Chieng: International Student

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It’d be easy to miss this one – a BBC Three acquisition that was only broadcast on BBC One very late at night – but it’d be a real shame if you did. Ronny Chieng: International Student has a certain charm that you could liken to Community, perhaps, but it’s very much its own show. Witty and inventive, this series draws on the real-life university experiences of its star Ronny Chieng – the perfect straight man for his increasingly absurd surroundings. In a year with a lot of great new comedies, this is the sort of show that might not get the attention it deserves – but it is genuinely, properly funny.

Snowfall

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Part of what I like about Snowfall is that it’s slow. Not in terms of pacing, not exactly; rather, it takes a measured approach, one that really lets it dwell on the period and pay close attention to detail. In that sense, Snowfall stands out because of how well it’s able to evoke a feel for the crack epidemic in 1983 Los Angeles. It’s the perfect backdrop for a cast of characters making increasingly compromised decisions – with newcomer Damson Idris giving a standout performance, Snowfall is definitely a drama that’s worth a look.

Babylon Berlin

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Babylon Berlin is absolutely mesmerising. I said as much in my review of the show’s first season, but it really does bear repeating. The most expensive piece of television Germany has ever produced, every penny that went into Babylon Berlin translates to the screen – it’s a gorgeous drama, perfectly evoking the aesthetic of the 1920s. It’s also home of one of the best television moments of 2017 full stop – the almost trance-like conclusion to the second episode is breathtaking, exuding confidence and inspiring awe.

Ill Behaviour

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Ill Behaviour took an absurd premise, but elevated it into something more – a dark comedy that was also a genuinely affecting drama. With a wit as quick as it was dark, this wasn’t just gallows humour; it’s a programme about repression, denial, and the lengths people go to in extreme situations. As ever, it’s a show that works because of its characters – self-destructive and neurotic, and perfectly pitched by the cast, each have a real and meaningful character arc. Ill Behaviour is packed with laughs, but it also leaves a lasting impact long after the credits roll.

The End of the F***ing World

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One of my personal favourite programmes of the year – I know that’s true of a lot of the shows on this list, but it’s particularly true of this. The End of the F***ing World is an elegant character study, focused on two isolated teenagers who live in liminal spaces; it lends its two leads, James and Alyssa, a real interiority, serving to emphasise the poignancy – and in some ways the tragedy – of the journey they undertake. Of course, it’d be remiss of me not to mention Alex Lawther and Jessica Barden, who really do make the series; an absolutely magnetic pairing, they’re fantastic actors who really embody the facades, neuroses and vulnerabilities of their characters.

Even then, of course, there are a lot of shows I’ve missed off this list that, if it could go on forever, I’d have loved to include – Guerilla, Overshadowed, or King Charles III, to name just a few. And that’s without mentioning all the excellent shows that, for one reason or another, I didn’t get the chance to see – shows like Three Girls, The Replacement or Bancroft.

If nothing else, that was one good thing about 2017 – there was a lot of really fantastic television.

Note: This was meant to be a Yahoo article which, for boring technical reasons I can’t work out, doesn’t actually display on the website anywhere – so I’ve put it here instead. Looking back on some of my choices, there’s a couple I probably would’ve changed – the fact that both The End of the F***ing World and Babylon Berlin took off massively in early 2018 because they turned up on American Netflix was validating, but does make me wish I’d taken the chance to stump for Overshadowed, which I really do love.

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Babylon Berlin is an absolutely mesmerising piece of German noir

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Babylon Berlin recently finished its first season, and was absolutely stunning from start to finish. It’s a complex paranoia thriller, a noir mystery set against the backdrop of political intrigue, police corruption and revolutionary fervour – drawing each of its threads together into a compelling and skilfully executed larger story. The series carries itself with a certain confidence, and it’s an entirely deserved one.

There’s something almost relentless about Babylon Berlin – not in terms of pace, where the show is considered and measured, but rather in its zeal and dynamic. At times it’s positively electric, centred as it is at the eye of the storm at a time when the world is changing. With its focus on rising extremism from both sides of the political spectrum, Babylon Berlin depicts a way of life the audience knows will soon be cut short – something that adds to the current of urgency that underpins the series.

I absolutely loved Babylon Berlin – it was one of my favourite shows of 2017, and I think the close of the second episode is probably one of the best TV moments ever. Genuinely, it was like I was in a trance state watching that.

I’ve not yet had the chance to watch the second series – it’s sitting taking up space on the television planner right now – but I’m massively, massively looking forward to getting around to it eventually.

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Why I don’t watch Game of Thrones and I never will

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Game Of Thrones is one of the most popular television series around – a genuine, proper, global phenomenon. When people describe the golden age of television, Game Of Thrones is one of the hallowed offerings placed alongside the likes of Breaking Bad, Mad Men or The Wire. People build their lives around this programme in a way they do with few others – it doesn’t just command a loyal cult following, but a real populist significance too.

I don’t watch Game Of Thrones, though. I never will.

So, a couple of things are going on here.

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.)

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Is Veep moving in the wrong direction?

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Yet in the final episode, the show changed tack once more – the seventh season will see Veep once again tackle a presidential election, this time seeing both Selina Meyer and Jonah Ryan running for president. In and of itself, it was a reasonably well-constructed episode; Groundbreaking, the sixth season finale, bluntly underscored one of Veep’s longest running themes – that Selina Meyer will do anything, sacrifice anything, for power. Moving forward, however – well, it’s difficult to see exactly how the programme will continue to stay fresh, arguably returning to the well one time too many.

I absolutely adore Veep – it’s one of my favourite shows on television. Much as I did enjoy season 6, though, I can’t help but feel the seventh season is being set up for failure…

(Admittedly, the subsequent revelation that season 7 is going to be the last does change things a little bit.)

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