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Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Farewell and Welcome

One in, one out, as the old saying doesn't really go, but would if their was a bit less poetry and a bit more literalism in the world.

The last couple of weeks have seen me smash my way through the final few episodes of Battlestar Galactica and add to my schedule the new Arthurian show, Camelot. One endeavour gave me immense levels of entertainment, with action, emotion and noble sacrifices galore while the other was a big pile of try hard adolescent nonsense. Guess which was which.

I've been guilty in the past of judging shows before I've even seen an episode. I assumed, as I think most people did, that Buffy The Vampire Slayer was going to be disposable fluff; I assumed that Spooks: Code 9 was going to be arsom; and I assumed that Merlin was going to be really irritating youth oriented nonsense, more Robin Hood than Doctor Who. We all know about the incredible legacy that Buffy has left, the less said about Code 9 the better and Merlin has fast become a firm favourite of mine. The success of this latter show in winning me over was largely responsible for me attempting to put aside my prejudices regarding the latest addition to my schedule; Camelot. The thematic and narrative ties between the two led me to hope that where Merlin had succeeded in winning me over, Camelot would as well. Sadly, my preconceptions in this case were quite strong, since everything I heard about this show prior to watching pointed toward it being a dismal failure.

The first problem with Camelot was of course it's casting.There is no way on Earth that even the most talented PR man or woman is ever going to convince me that Joseph Fiennes is a suitable choice to play a) Merlin or b) any other character at all, in this show or any other, ever. To put it simply, The. Man. Can. Not. Act. Sorry, but there it is.

Other casting decisions were less worrying by comparison but only in the way that getting run over by a car is less worrying than getting run over by an articulated lorry; Eva Green, whose work I'm not overly familiar with, seemed to be talked about entirely in terms of how often she got her kit off, which while always a welcome trait in attractive female characters, dosn't constitute a character in and of itself.

Meanwhile, Jamie Campbell-Bower as Arthur spends the whole show looking like he'd be more comfortable running up and down a beach in Summer Bay than charming a nation into proclaiming him the greatest monarch they'd ever had. I should say that I have no problem with the concept of a reluctant young hero forced into responsibilities he doesn't feel ready for; it's a standard trope of the fantasy genre and plenty of solid drama can be drawn from the premise when it's done well but you need a charismatic lead for it to work and here we have, well, look at him.

All the casting woes aside though - and I won't even go into what a drippy mare Tamsin Egertons Guinevere looks - pale into insignificance when you factor in the big one; Executive Producer and head writer Chris Chibnall, who has proven time and again over the last few years that there isn't a cliche or plot contrivance he won't stoop to in his quest to thoroughly dumb down genre drama. I can see why Starz felt he was the man for the job, what with the two seasons of Torchwood he oversaw doing such great numbers in the States but really, they are television proffessionals; could they not recognise that that shows success was almost entirely in spite of his efforts? He wrote 'Cyberwoman' and 'Countrycide' for Gods sake.

So, despite my best mental efforts I couldn't go into Camelot with high hopes. The question is, did the show (under)perform as expected, or did it blow my socks off? I'll be brutally frank, it was the former. I tried, I really did, but Arthur was a sulky prick, Merlin was another one note performance from Fiennes exactly as I'd predicted and Eva Green seems to have been watching the BBCs Merlin series as research on how to play Morgan, since she has got Katie 'Morgana' McGraths blank eyed woodenness down to an art. Chibnall meanwhile has fulfilled all of my expectations of him by littering the script with dialogue that is by turns crushingly bland and cringe-inducingly try-hard, while his attempts at fore-shadowing and portentousness are so maddeningly unsubtle as to be insulting to the audience; we see Arthur sleep with his brothers girlfriend and then an hour later he meets Guinevere but, gasp, she is engaged to Arthurs new friend. Surely Arthur, as figurehead of the Government and squarejawed hero, wouldn't steal his friends woman? Of course not, he wouldn't drea...WAIT A MINUTE, THAT BIT AT THE START! HE TOTALLY WOULD! That's subtlety for you, people, Chibnall style.

I am reliably informed, by various anonymous commentators whom I've never met and whose opinions are therefore bullet-proof, that the show picks up dramatically as it progresses and ends the season on a massive high. I genuinely hope that this is true, but I'm afraid it's very much a case of "I'll believe it when I see it."

So, if Camelot is the less than stellar of this weeks featured shows then Battlestar Galactica must be the one that managed to float my boat. Having amassed a pretty hefty backlog of episodes I had resigned myself to having something of a slog ahead of me, due in large part to the attitudes of several people who had convinced me that it suffered a huge downturn in quality in it's latter days. Imagine my surprise then when what I actually encountered was a show so confident, both in it's story and in it's cast, that it continually pushed the limits of what it was and what it could be, right up to the very end of it's run, producing what I would describe as pretty much the exact opposite of a downturn in quality.

Knowing well in advance that the 4th season was going to be the last meant that there was no longer any need, nor indeed time, for tedious filler episodes like S2's 'Black Market' or S3's 'Unfinished Business'. Instead we got the most consistent run of episodes since S1, that looked, from the premiere onwards, for all the world like a show on a mission; confident in their story and in the ability of their cast to tell that story, the writers gave us a rollercoaster tour-de-force that more than delivered on the properties early promise. They even back-burnered the awful Apollo/Starbuck romance nonsense.

The biggest factor in the show going out on such a high was the recognition from the writers that when you make a show about warfare, and indeed genocide, you'd better be willing to shed a little blood if you don't want to appear toothless; and boy oh boy did they spill blood in S4. To be fair, the show had always acknowledged, and remained truthful to, the very dark premise with several recurring characters meeting untimely ends over the years but as the big finish began to loom it became apparent that while the writers may well be willing to give Humanity a happy ending, it was going to make them sacrifice a hell of a lot to get there.

Case in point; quite early in S4, the death of Callie (best looking woman on the show, fact) was as brutal and shocking as it was dramatically honest. I can't believe anyone, viewer or crew member, genuinely relished the prospect of Nicki Clynes departure from the show but the story is King and she needed to go, so go she did. It made me genuinely angry, but it also made me understand, perhaps for the first time, how far this team were willing to go, and made the rest of the season all the more thrilling, because you never quite knew who might be the next to go. I'll admit, too, that it did my little fanboy heart good to see that my favourite characters death was given extra meaning in the finale, as the reveal of her murderer initiates the last bout of bloodshed in the entire series.

When you take into account suicides (it comes out of nowhere and is properly shocking), executions (another of my favourites went in this way, following his part in a mutiny), and combat deaths (sudden and unglamorous, the way they should be) it really is shocking just how many regular and recurring characters don't even make it to the finale, and then it all kicks off just long enough to cull a few more, so that only the chosen (very) few make it to the redemptive new home. It's bleak, but probably realistic (if you can apply that term to a show about robots and spaceships), and one suspects that to end any other way would have fallen pretty flat.

Uber-foot RIPNow, final thoughts on the finale. In much the same way as Lost did, the finale ends on a very spiritual note. This has been used by several of my acquaintance as a negative, again just as with Lost. Now, without wishing to over stress the comparison, religion and spirituality has been a huge part of Galactica since the very beginning, just like Lost; in fact, Galactica was if anything even more explicit in that respect, so to point to the inclusion of such themes in the finales as a flaw or in some way a betrayal of the audience seems a little, well, dense and swimming in point missing. Maybe that's just me, though.

So there you have it. One great show ends and one mediocre show arrives and the wheels of the Quest continue to turn. Join me next week when I talk about something or other to do with the telly.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Psychoville. God I Love This Show!

I have put off writing this blog for a week because I was trying to prolong the notion in my head that the show in question was still an active concern in my viewing schedule. I've tried my best to draw out the experience, watching the first series again this past weekend and using said viewing as a chance to re-engage various twitter friends in discourse on the show, but it can be put off no longer; the time has come to put finger to key and discuss the show that I believe, in all honesty, to be the best thing on television this year.

I came to League of Gentlemen, as I seem to do to many things, late in the day. I caught an episode from the tail end of S2 on the BBC2 and decided at that moment that this was something I was definitely going to get into in a big way. If you want to know, it was the episode in which Tubbs and Edward attempt to get a girl for David from the supermarket, which I now know to be 'Anarchy In Royston Vasey.' Then,as was so often the case when you're trying to watch everything, it slipped my mind. Shocking, I know. It wasn't all bad news though because it meant that when I did come around to watching them all from the beginning they were readily available to buy. It was off to my beloved MVC (rip) and home again with the first 2 seasons on video (rip2).

I watched all 12 episodes of the first 2 seasons in what can only be described as a gluttonous orgy of sick, twisted, pitch black laughter. I was hooked, and would remain so for the remainder of it's life. Season 3 is of course the year that many fans abandoned the League, claiming that it wasn't as good, when what they really meant was that it wasn't the same, but I loved it right up to the final grotesque yet oh so brilliant twist, as Royston Vasey was once more visited by possibly it's most iconic guest.

With Mark Gatiss off making himself indispensable to the Doctor Who production team while co-creating Sherlock with greatest living television writer Steven Moffat and Jeremy Dyson enhancing his reputation with comedy/thriller Funland and stage play Ghost Stories, the other two members of the team set about creating what many assumed would be League of Gentlemen MKII. A show about a group of grotesques? Check. Multiple characters played by the principals? Check. Surreal, horror tinged comedy? Check. The show that eventually graced our screens, however, was so much more than that. Coming as it does from the pen of two of the League of Gentlemen you could pretty reasonably expect that Psychoville was going to be a little, shall we say, dark. And you'd be right. What you might not have expected, given the sketch based nature of much of the Leagues output, was that the show would become as much tightly plotted serialised thriller as it was sit-com. Is there no end to these guys talents?*

The show begins with a mysterious masked figure sending blackmail messages to five disparate characters;

Oscar Lomax (Steve Pemberton)

Mr Joll...sorry, Jelly (Reece Shearsmith)

Joy Aston (Dawn French)

David Sowerbutt (Steve Pemberton)

Robert Greenspan (Jason Tomkins)

and proceeds to follow the five as they deal with this unwelcome reminder of a shared past that they'd rather forget, and that we the viewer will have to wait to see, as it is drip fed to us over the course of the first series. Except, well, that's not what the show does at all; not really. Joy tries to ignore the letters and carry on with her 'normal' life, David doesn't actually see his, while Robert assumes that he's being blackmailed about something completely different. Oscar Lomax, meanwhile, is far more interested in tracking down the last 'commodity' he needs for his collection. Only Jolly, sorry Jelly really makes any attempt to get to the bottom of the note, teaming up with rival clown Mr Jolly in the process, but even here things are very much 'not what they seem'.

I really, truly adore Psychoville. The six main protagonists (Davids Mum Maureen, as played by, you guessed it, Reece Shearsmith has as big a part to play as any of the aforementioned five) are all (with the possible exception of Robert) beautifully observed examples of how to make 'crazy' characters sympathetic and likable, while the supporting characters - including a couple played by, what where their names again, oh yes, Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith - are never less than utterly believable in this world, however insane the idea behind them or the events they are involved in.

One of the biggest differences between this show and the League shows is that while Royston Vasey was populated almost entirely by freaks, Psychoville goes to great pains to show us that this is the real world, with real people, whose reactions to our 'heroes' is often fodder for some beautiful little moments. Like the married couple who are fascinated by the bodily functions of the Crabtree Siamese twins, or the family who have to deal with Joll...shit...Jelly at their daughters birthday party and of course the ultimate 'ordinary' bloke, Michael 'Tealeaf' Fry, who gets sucked into the bizarre world of Oscar Lomax when assigned to help him as part of his community service. Tealeaf, or Teeaaaleeaaaf, became a firm favourite of mine, with his weary acceptance of all the weird stuff he encountered and also, subtle though it was, the genuine affection he obviously had for Oscar.

As the first series nears it's climax all of the characters converge on the same location and we learn the truth about just what they really did.Then everything is turned on it's head with a masterstroke of a twist and everyone appears to die in a massive cliffhanger. You don't get that with Life Of Riley.

Before I move on to Season 2, check out what I think is one of the greatest moments of television comedy ever. Hilarious in the context of the show, it's almost as funny simply as a sly dig at todays bureaucracy fuelled world.

Anyway, Psychoville returned with first of all a Halloween Special - and boy did it live up to that tag - that told a few apocryphal stories about it's leads before introducing a shadowy new figure that we would see a lot more of in S2, and then a brand new 6 episode season. There was no trepidation this time around, only excitement, as the thought that they would let us down was, well, unthinkable.

Even the most excitable fan, though, couldn't have predicted what they delivered. If season 1 was great then season 2 was nothing less than an absolute masterpiece. Far more tightly plotted than the first run, which was actually quite loose in it's early stages, the writing is never anything less than tightrope taut with the - surprisingly large number of - survivors of the season 1 cliffhanger discovering that their ordeal is far from over and the new threat in their lives, though it be chasing the same Macguffin as the S1 villain, is rather more ruthless and organised about how it goes about it.

Some complained that too many survived the events of the cliffhanger; that the loss of life would have been far greater and they had perpetrated a cop out. These complaints didn't last very long. Had they given a reprieve to more people than was perhaps realistic? Yes, they had, but those same characters were very soon being picked off by the psychopathic Detective Finney, a Police Detective ostensibly investigating the events of the cliffhanger who nevertheless has some much more sinister motives.

Make no bones about it, S2 is darker, scarier and more violent than anything S1 provided. Characters; and we're talking major regular roles, are despatched left and right as dark forces close in on our heroes; new character Jeremy Goode manages to go from deeply sinister to likable to ultimately pitiable defeated figure while his unwelcome companion Silent Singer is just, if you'll pardon my French, creepy as fuck; and Finney is as remorseless a killer as you'd find in any Bourne movie. No-one is safe in this story and it's safe to say that every Psychoville fan will have lost a favourite or two - I know I did - before the last men standing find themselves at the eye of the storm as all is explained - if you said you'd guessed it you're deluded or lying - with the MacGuffin they'd all been chasing being revealed as exactly that and most of the loose ends from both runs nicely tied up while leaving a number of intriguing avenues for any potential third season to explore.

Only two left
Sadly, the likelihood of a third season is slim, by all accounts. Viewing figures were down and reviews from the mainstream press less than stellar, which can only be described as a travesty. I can not overstate to you how sad this makes me. With the exception of Moffat Doctor Who and, maybe, the Life On Mars / Ashes To Ashes franchise, British telefantasy has not produced anything at even a fraction of the level of writing, performance and just sheer class of this production in many many years and here we have a team that has the talent, not to mention a sheer love of the medium that shines out of every scene, to provide us with something that could, if nurtured, have run for years of classic material and what do we do? We throw it in their faces. The British public get what they deserve. And they deserve what they get.

In a final note on this show; the viewers may not have been there in huge numbers but those that did stick around where of the none-so-loyal variety. Watching this show in the company of fellow fans via the wonder of twitter has done nothing but enhance the experience and I have connected with a couple of people this way that I am still in contact with on a daily basis. This is my first experience of this phenomenon of people coming together online over a shared love and I'm better off for it. If we get no more Psychoville, that at least will be a pleasant legacy.

*Well, Steve Pemberton failed to make Benidorm watchable but we're none of us miracle workers are we?

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

A Good Man...

So, the last few days have seen not one, but two absolutely glorious finales grace our screens. And they were both British shows as well, what are the chances?

First up was Saturdays 'Mid-Season Finale' of Doctor Who. As big a fan as I am of this show - and I am - I have to admit to a deepening sense of frustration with this first batch of episodes from what is the second season under the control of Steven Moffat (Winner, Faplads Favourite Showrunner, 2011)

There have been a number of complaints that the show has, under Moffat, become too dark, or too complicated, or that there are too many unanswered questions. Funnily enough, most of these complaints seem to be coming from adults; the kids are loving it the same as ever. Personally, while I do think that this latest batch of episodes has had problems, I don't think that it's any of the above named; it's simply that too many of the episodes have just not been very good. Moffats episodes, as they invariably are, were fantastic; exciting, clever, funny,thought provoking and just a little bit scary (or a lot scary, in places), they did everything you want a Doctor Who episode to do, and then some, but sadly, of the episodes between, only master fantasist Neil Gaiman has managed to write, with 'The Doctors Wife', something that in my opinion deserves to be in the company of Moffats contributions.

That the Steve Thompson penned episode 'The Curse Of The Black Spot' was poor should perhaps not have come as a surprise, given that Thompson was the weak link on the writing team that brought us S1 of Sherlock and has done little else of note in the world of television. This relative inexperience should perhaps earn him a little leeway though.

Mathew Graham on the other hand has no such excuse. A highly experienced television writer with form for producing classic science fiction works of his own (he was one of the big guns on the Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes project and was responsible for many of the best episodes on that, including it's extremely well received - and rightly so - finale), Graham also has previous experience of writing Doctor Who. His episode starring David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, 'Fear Her', was not the best received of Tennants first season but I've always had a bit of a soft spot for it; woefully saccharine ending aside of course. I had high hopes indeed for what he could produce with a 2part running time and a decent Doctor to write for.

Sadly, he let me down here with 'The Rebel Flesh' and 'The Almost People', producing a story where the characters just lurched along from one poorly contrived set piece to another with little in the way of natural plot progression or relatable character motivations. Indeed, the guest cast, superb performers though most of them were, were locked in a constant struggle to convince us that we were watching actual people, living actual lives. In the end, the struggle proved to be a futile one; rather than becoming products of their experiences throughout the tale, characters became what they needed to be to forward the plot. And not particularly gracefully either, the main antagonist played by Sarah Smart being the prime but by no means only offender.

So with three of the six aired episodes having been duffers, the season was looking a little shaky. Luckily though, the man himself stepped up to the plate for the final episode of the run and what a magnificent return to form it was for the show.

Matt Smith showed us once again why he is quite possibly the greatest actor to play the Doctor (he has yet to topple John Pertwee from the top spot for me but he's very comfortably ensconced in the no. 2 position, and gaining fast) as the Doctor moved from comic bravado to chilling menace to sheer, red in the face anger; and when the Doctor is truly angry, the Universe shakes. You only need to listen to the Doctors response as Kovarian mocks the rules good men live by. "Good men don't need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many." Translation: I am a badass. Fuck with me and mine and I will end you. This is a Doctor we've not seen before (although it perhaps owes a debt to the later McCoy stories) and I for one am very intrigued as to where Moffat intends to go with it.

Elsewhere; we get laugh out loud comedy from, of all things, a Sontaran nurse, ("Don't slouch, it's bad for the posture", he tells his defeated foe.); there's a joke involving a tongue that I still can't believe they got away with; Oh, and the 3yrs in the making mystery of River Songs identity is finally laid to rest. Well, sort of; I have no doubt that there is a lot more to this particular story.

In all then, Moffat did what Moffat always does; he brought the genius and proved once again that writing Doctor Who is pretty much the job he was born to do, managing in the process to banish some of the sour taste this run had left. It's to be hoped however, that the back half of the season sees him perhaps exercising a little more quality control over the work of the other writers, so that watching Doctor Who doesn't become a game of 'waiting for Moffat'.

Could this man soon be dethroned?

Far more consistent in it's quality (if not, sadly, its ratings) was Psychoville; the second of this weeks big finales.

However , you shall have to wait until next week to find out what I thought of that because before I put pen to paper, or finger to key, I feel it only right and proper that I do my research and re-watch the first series again, to the ensure that the whole thing is fresh in my memory. It'll be tough, but I'll persevere.