The politics, passions, and people of A Very English Scandal

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One of the more interesting comments Russell T Davies made in the weeks before A Very English Scandal first aired was that he thought “both [Norman Scott and Jeremy Thorpe] were victims”, in a way.

It’s perhaps not immediately apparent why Davies considered Jeremy Thorpe a victim, given after all that A Very English Scandal dramatises Thorpe’s efforts to have Norman Scott killed. It’s a story of power, politics, and passion, of conspiratorial whispers in the hallowed halls of power, and Thorpe is at the very heart of that. Casting Hugh Grant was, in many way, a stroke of genius; his Thorpe isn’t just suffused with predatory menace, but, as many have noted, feels informed by his past as a charismatic romantic lead. In turn, Grant’s Thorpe is a vision of that charm, curdled into something darker – there’s an undefinable, irresistibly engaging quality about him, even knowing there’s something rotten lurking within. Declaring Norman Scott must die with as much conviction as he opposes racism in the House of Commons, or planning how to dispose of his body with the same light, casual ease as mimicking the Prime Minister, doesn’t exactly seem to support the understanding that Thorpe is anything short of a Machiavellian villain.

But, if it’s difficult to see Thorpe as a victim from the first two episodes, it’s a scene in A Very English Scandal’s closing episode that renders Davies’ point crystal clear.

I am so, so proud of this piece, I’ve got to say. Genuinely, when I’d finished it, I was absolutely beaming – I was convinced, and still am, that it was one of the best pieces of writing I’d done in quite some time.

The only thing that, admittedly, is less than stellar about it is the title. I don’t think it really conveys what it’s about, does it? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure it conveys much of anything, it’s a bit… empty. Better, though, than other variations, such as “the politics, power and prejudice”.

Anyway, I’d really appreciate any shares that this one gets, because like I said, I’m extremely proud of it.

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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.

Flowers, a quiet comedy with the feel of a melancholy fairytale, is strikingly brilliant

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The second series of Flowers, a piece which is very much in conversation with its predecessor, continues to evoke the feel of a fairytale – approaching it, however, from a different aesthetic. As writer and director Will Sharpe (who also plays Shun, the Flowers’ live-in illustrator) noted, Flowers draws on “a pagan and mystical heritage”, and that’s something the second series really emphasises. Broader in scope than series 1, moving its focus from Maurice to his daughter Amy, Flowers series 2 builds itself around the aesthetic of the aforementioned “pagan and mystical heritage”. There’s a new, warmer colour palette, in keeping with the summer setting; it’s evocative of the world of faerie, positioning mental health issues within that liminal space.

As a result, there’s a different energy to Flowers’ second series – it’s now less a haunting reverie and more of a wild rush. Indeed, something that’s worth remarking on about Flowers, and is perhaps less often spoken about, is the editing; much of Flowers comes down to the experience of watching it, the feeling of that wild rush, and that’s created in no small part by Selina Macarthur’s editing. The show masters tone such that it is, in some respects, less a television series and more of an experience –  the texture and the feel of the show is, arguably, one of the most impactful things about it.

This one, admittedly, I think I messed up.

So, I was running late with this piece, for various boring reasons we’ll call “personal problems” (in that they pertain to problems with me as a person) which put me under some time constraints when it came to actually writing it. You can perhaps tell, I think, because the second half of the article (typically the close focus/second idea aspect, insofar as I ever stick to the relatively loose structure I try and use) is a broader, more general “things that are good about the show” section, which is usually though not always a sign that I’ve struggled to get the piece to work. Possibly I shouldn’t have revealed the trick. Whoops.

Anyway, a day or two later, with some more though, I realised what I would have liked to write for the second half of the article, because it (hopefully) would have actually advanced all those ideas about fairytales and pagan mysticism I put forward in the first half. Essentially, the character Shun is kind of at a remove from the rest of the characters, right? On a couple of levels, really; there’s just the fact that the character is at a bit of a loose end sometimes, not a member of the family, whatever, but there’s also the metatextual level – Shun is played by Will Sharpe, who created it and writes it and directs it. He’s more of an observer for a lot of it, and we also know he’s the creator.

Also notable, though: Shun is the only one who ever interacts with these magical realism elements. He has that moment with his family (is that significant because of like, forests and the dead in both English and Japanese culture?) at the end of s1, and – eliding spoilers – s2 has an ending similarly shaped around Shun. Well, similar in that he’s important. Anyway, what does that say about the show?

Not a clue, but I felt like I’d stumbled onto something really important but didn’t have the time to actually let it develop into anything. That felt like a particular shame, because I really loved Flowers, and it’s always a bit of a point of personal disappointment when it feels like I’ve not done a show justice with my writing. Ah well. One to revisit one day, maybe.

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How The Good Fight found clarity in chaos, and answers in absurdity

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The Good Fight’s title sequence is instructive. Set to a frantic score by David Buckley, it marries ordered elegance with violent disruption; a vase of flowers, phones, a gavel and so on all explode, their pieces scattered. A vibrant red claret from a shattering wine glass fills the screen, and dust and ash float across a dark background.

What it is, in effect, is a means to set the stage. It establishes chaos as the status quo. And then it begs the question: what next?

Where last year The Good Fight heralded a need to fight, it now turns to a different question: how can you fight? Again, the title sequence is instructive, having been fine tuned since last year; the television screens, added to the explosive line-up this season, juxtapose the absurdity of Putin’s overly macho image with the chilling horror of Charlottesville marchers. It’s a world where the awful and the absurd are so often the same; it’s a world ripped from the headlines, after all. As Diane Lockhart (The Good Fight’s inimitable lead, Christine Baranski) notes, “I used to laugh at the absurdity of the news. Now I’m all laughed out”.

I love love love The Good FightIt’s one of my favourite shows of the past two years; ahead of writing this article I spent a whole day rewatching episodes of season 2 and, while I normally hate binge-watching television, it was genuinely the most fun I’d had in ages.

The ending of this piece is perhaps a little weak; I think there’s a thread of connective tissue that I didn’t quite get right, which hampers that conclusion a little. A few days later I worked out how to fix it, though… and then promptly forget it, which is irritating.

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The Resident is a medical show that hates the medicine industry, and there’s something weirdly captivating about that

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In almost every episode, there’s one clear villain. It’s not illness or disease, or even really medical malpractice exactly – it’s the profit-seeking motive. People die because hospital administrators emphasise finances over patients, or because they don’t have the right insurance, or because they end up on the wrong side of a cost-benefit analysis. In one episode, Conrad performs an expensive, expressly forbidden medical procedure to save someone’s life; in the next, people die because the hospital is understaffed as a result of trying to balance the books after that operation. There’s a real vein of cynicism and disdain for what The Resident describes as the “questionable ethics” of its setting – in short, The Resident is a medical programme that pretty openly hates the medical industry.

It’s not that it’s entirely unique in addressing the failings of the American medical system – but, rather than it being the Act 4 obstacle in occasional episodes, the damage wrought by the profit-seeking motive is an inalienable fact of The Resident’s status quo. That’s what sets it apart, and why I’m still watching; if nothing else, I’m curious about where exactly it’s going to go. There’s a sense that the show is grappling with a problem it’ll never solve, albeit for obvious reasons; I can’t imagine any of the characters ever leaving to become universal healthcare lobbyists, or The Resident ever breaking with reality by depicting the sweeping reforms needed to resolve its central obsession.

So, this is an article that had a little bit of an interesting journey to it.

As I outline at the start of this piece, my plan initially was to liken The Resident to House, given the show itself seemed to beg such a comparison. Essentially, I was going to write a sister article to my earlier piece on how The Good Doctor moves on from House – discussing all the ays in which The Resident doesn’t, and how it struggles to do anything interesting with the ‘abrasive medical antihero’ format even as it tried to deconstruct it.

However! The people working on The Resident clearly realised there were some flaws with the pilot, and shifted focus to move the show in a different direction, meaning The Resident became something a little weirder: a medical show that openly hates the American medicine industry. It still wasn’t very good, and had a lot of weird stuff going on (the finale, because I ended up watching it for that long, had a very eek line about how doctors are the same as cops) but it was, as I said, weirdly captivating.

What you might also notice about this piece is that it’s in first person, which isn’t something I typically do with this type of article. (I do do it with reviews, though this isn’t the time to explain my internal review vs article distinction.) Mostly I just wanted to try somethign a little new. I’m not convinced it… not that it didn’t work, but I suppose more that it didn’t really make a difference. Which is either a good thing or a bad thing, because I don’t quite remember what the idfference I wanted it to make was, if indeed there was any.

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With Solo struggling, what does Jon Favreau’s Star Wars TV show need to be to survive?

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One possibility why it wasn’t so successful, though, is that Solo simply didn’t quite push the envelope enough to capture audience attention. Up to a point, that seems like the intention; in comparing the main saga to the anthology movies, it seems that they’re deliberately intended to counterbalance one another – that Solo is, in effect, the more traditional movie designed for people who didn’t like the more experimental The Last Jedi. A Boba Fett movie, and indeed the planned Obi-Wan Kenobi movie, seem to follow broadly the same thinking. However, if audiences have rejected Solo for being too traditional, and not offering enough new ideas, it’s possible this approach isn’t quite going to work.

If we’re assuming that the reason, or part of the reason, Solo has struggled (and it is, in fairness, an assumption) is because of a relative lack of new ideas, then this is one of the first important steps for Jon Favreau’s Star Wars TV shows to make to succeed.

I wrote this a day or two after watching Solo, a film which I enjoyed rather more than I expected to. (Mainly on the strength of Alden Ehrenreich’s performance, actually; I thought the story was often less than inspired, and the direction occasionally dire, but Ehrenreich was just so charming a lead he rescued the entire film. I wish he’d been Han Solo in a much better film, really.)

Anyway, following Solo and the Boba Fett announcement (which is now a little more in limbo, I guess), I started thinking about Jon Favreau’s Star Wars TV show, which I am desperately hoping will be something entirely new. Not even necessarily new in general, just new in terms of Star Wars at least.

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Safe’s story of paranoia and secrecy does an impressive job of standing out in a crowded genre

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What’s also notable, though, is the way Safe treats its characters. It’s a given in a crime drama like this that, at some point or another, each member of the supporting cast will become a prime suspect; Safe, for its part, moves the lens of suspicion from character to character in subtle, understated ways. It’s not dictated simply – or, maybe more accurately, it’s not dictated only – by the momentum of the plot, but often lead just as much by the camera itself, even when not addressed by the dialogue. Note how the camera focuses on Pete Mayfield’s car, after it’s revealed that not only has DC Emma Castle been investigating Pete, but that her former partner was killed in a hit-and run; the implication being, then, that Pete was the reckless driver in question.

Doubt is part of the text of the programme, and no one is free from it; Safe even positions Jenny herself as a figure of suspicion in at one point. It’s a clever solution to a problem that’s been endemic to the genre; while such dramas focus on a missing child, the child themselves is always defined by their absence, more an idea than a character in their own right. Safe uses the audience’s detachment from Jenny, and how little they know about her, to evoke a genuine uncertainty – one that neatly feeds into the drama’s wider concerns.

Man, this one was a difficult one to write. Genuinely, I can’t think of a single piece I’ve ever written that was harder to physically carve out of me, not for as long as I’ve been writing. I don’t think that – not effort, exactly, but it sounds less pretentious than “struggle” – is obvious on the page, because I don’t actually think that, in the end, it was a particularly good article. It was, you know, fin.

But! The difficulty came from, well, I’m not even entirely sure where. We’ll describe it as my mood, I suppose. All the “you can’t write” insecurities that we all have (or at least everyone says they have) just collapsed in on me at once right in the middle of this one. Literally, actually, the hardest part was the second half of the article. Eventually, I managed to get it done, though not after… well, a lot of thought and stress.

The moral of the story, of course, is that all these doubts are unfounded and I’m actually wonderful. No, I jest. When I actually did manage to fix it it was only because I just sat and ploughed through it (after several days of thought and space to calm down) – the real moral, I suppose, is that the only way to write is to write. Or something less twee, I dunno, there isn’t really a moral.

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How The City and the City renders the noir genre within liminal spaces

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The central conceit of the series, in a way, is about unfamiliarity. The City and the City presents us with two overlapping city-states, Besźel and Ul Qoma; they inhabit the same physical space, but are perceived as two distinct places, separated by a skin stretched across the world. There’s something impressive about how effortlessly The City and the City presents this mythology, a mythology with its own idiosyncratic language and vocabulary – immediately, and without reservation, giving the sense of a world that’s lived in and already intuitively understood by the characters we see.

Similarly impressive, then, is the way the series realises this concept. Crossing over the border is an act that renders the familiar unfamiliar, and it’s an effect achieved through no small part because of Tom Shankland’s evocative direction. Where Besźel is rendered in soft beige tones and yellow light, Ul Qoma is cast in vivid scarlet and cyan; even as the two cities share their geography, they each feel distinct, with their own sharply defined identities. Peering across the breach, a transgressive act, is to confront the unfamiliar – something you know rendered differently, just out of reach.

I’ve not read the book, which I suspect puts me at a little bit of a disadvantage with this piece; certainly, while I was writing it, I began to get the sense that there was a certain degree more depth to the story that I wasn’t quite touching on, and that the article probably would’ve benefitted a little from, at the very least, having been informed by a slightly deeper knowledge of the source material.

Still! That said, I really enjoyed this show, and it very much made me want to read the book – I’ve been meaning to get into China Miéville books for a while, largely at Robbie’s recommendation, so the show was an extra little bit of impetus. Or it will be anyway, I’m still yet to make a start with it.

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The Assassination of Gianni Versace is an intimate portrait of a killer, granting him the fame he always sought

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It’s not about the assassination of Gianni Versace, as many have already noted. Or, at least, it’s not just about the eponymous assassination, casting it as inciting event rather than the climax of the series. Instead, The Assassination of Gianni Versace is about the assassin, Andrew Cunanan, and the events that led him to murder the internationally renowned designer.

The series moves backwards through Cunanan’s life, tracing his story in reverse; it’s a confident piece, expertly structured in approach. Rearranging the drama to watch the story unfold chronologically wouldn’t have the same effect – it’s layered in such a way that each backwards step complements what’s gone before, honing and accentuating The Assassination of Gianni Versace as a whole. Moments described in hindsight in one episode play out in present tense in the next; expectations are subverted and tension is heightened, a sense of not just dramatic irony but deep melancholy evoked as we move through the tapestry of Cunanan’s life. Note especially a scene from the sixth episode, Descent, a conversation between Cunanan and David Madson, a former lover and eventual victim. Madson is trying to connect with him, asking about his childhood; you can see his face fall as Cunanan, seemingly, starts to lie once again, and it’s this apparent lie that drives a wedge between them. Yet as the series continues, it’s revealed that Cunanan wasn’t lying. It’s not, obviously, that this excuses or justifies anything he did – but there’s a certain sadness to it all the same, and an insight into the neuroses that drove him.

Quite proud of this article on what is, as far as I’m concerned anyway, one of the best shows of the year. Intense and compelling and deeply moving, The Assassination of Giannia Versace is very, very much worth checking out.

I was, actually, so pleased with this article I put it in my portfolio, which you can check out here. I didn’t get the title quite right, admittedly, but I’m still pretty pleased with the actual content of the piece.

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How Come Home asks audiences to understand characters that are difficult to like

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It’d be easy, really, to dislike Marie. Certainly, the premise will predispose most of the audience against her; Come Home follows the story of Greg, a single father, and Marie, the wife who walked out on him eleven months prior. Immediately, Come Home subverts typical expectations about mothers and fathers, and poses the audience questions that could prove difficult. Can they understand Marie, despite their assumptions?

The first episode focuses primarily on Greg, establishing the status quo of his and his children’s lives following Marie’s departure; there’s something significant about the fact that audiences are given Greg’s perspective first, immediately inviting them to sympathise with him ahead of Marie. As the question of why she left hangs over the piece, what Come Home presents is a family clearly struggling. Christopher Eccleston gives a quiet, almost defeated performance; it’s dripping with melancholy, wearing his heartbreak on his sleeve. He’s easy to empathise with, a lonely man who seems full of empathy himself, taking in Brenna and her son to protect them from her abusive husband. When he sees Marie, all he wants is to know why – and so do we.

I must admit, I found this show quite frustrating, particularly the third episode. I watched them all in one evening, one after the other; I’d been under the understanding that it was going to be something a little more Rashomon-esque, with each episode retelling the same event from different perspectives. It wasn’t that, in the end – though admittedly I do still wonder if perhaps that would’ve been better.

What we got was, I suspect, almost intentionally frustrating. Certainly, it was thought-provoking, and they managed to avoid making it too black and white in terms of either Greg or Marie being straightforwardly ‘correct’. I do wish, though, a little more time had been dedicated to fleshing out Marie’s motivations in the third episode; without spoiling it particularly, in case anyone does want to seek it out and watch it, certain choices that she makes there feel borne more out of a desire on the part of the screenwriter to prompt conflict rather than anything else. (Especially given the ending.)

Still, though. I really enjoyed Christopher Eccleston in this, even the slightly uncanny valley Irish brogue rather than his usual Northern accent; Come Home, if nothing else, did affirm my belief that I’ll watch Christopher Eccleston in basically anything.

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