In the opening minutes of the new season of Channel 4’s Utopia, Rose Leslie’s Milner balances on one foot over a drop into the guest in a lavish mansion party. For those familiar with the show, it will hardly come as a surprise - the superb first season of Utopia continually did this; knife-edge tension during moments of extreme calm and beauty. The show’s return for a previously uncertain second season began in wholly unfamiliar territory. Through a 4:3 aspect ratio and ’70s TV filter, we see the early origins of the Utopia story, a young Jessica Hyde, and a young Arby, as more of the show’s clandestine villains are exposed and their motivations explained.
Philip Carvel, the writer of the fabled Utopiamanuscript from the first season, is played superbly with a Kubrickian tint by Tom Burke, not only in appearance but in character traits, which only lends itself to the retro interiors and sets. There’s a distinctly familiar feeling to the opening episode, as we watch the bittersweet and uneasy, but relatively undisturbed lives of Milner and Carvel before the events of the first series, scored impeccably by Cristobal Tapia De Veer who uses childlike theremins and choirs in equally effective measure. Rose Leslie as a young Milner is brilliant, a zealot for her cause whose descent (or ascent) into the character we know is brilliantly spelled out. It’s once again, pretty tough going, but honestly, with Utopia, it’s hard to have it any other way.
The second episode brings us crashing back to present day, catching us up to Jessica Hyde (Fiona O’Shaughnessy who is as enigmatic and venomous as ever. In a mirror to the pilot, Ian ( Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is once again stuck in his office job, though his growth since the pilot is immediately apparent, as is Arby’s, who now plays happy families with his girlfriend and her daughter, and insists on being called by his birth name of Pietre. Old characters are dripped into the plot, which doesn’t quite shift into top gear immediately. Parallels can be drawn with the pilot over and over again, as hints of danger and unrest boil below the surface. It’s perhaps for the best, as new viewers of the show are able to watch without feeling overwhelmed with the pace and it benefits from having a slow, anxious buildup to the darker events of the episode. It’s still light-hearted, too, with Grant (Oliver Wooliford) and Ian clashing early in the episode as they’re reunited.
The show is still stunningly shot, with a plethora of superb sets and moments of cinematic style that make this show stand out above the rest of British television. There’s no disparity of quality between Utopia and American hit shows, with the exception of the upper strata of television, and like those hit shows, sometimes Utopia is victim of tedious dialogue and writing with patronising plot exposition that was present in the first season rearing its ugly head from time to time.
Promising start for the second season of a show which may have ended abruptly enough to never have a second season. Thankfully it’s back and hopefully can cement itself, much like the graphic novel in the show, as a cult classic.
Silicon Valley comes from the minds of Mike Judge (King Of The Hill, Office Space) and longtime writing partners John Altschuler & Dave Krinsky (Role Models, Blade Of Glory), who have also been writers on some of Judge’s previous projects. Between the three, there’s plenty of hits and misses, and plenty of silly, crude comedy. Fortunately, HBO’s Silicon Valley feels destined to be a hit, often embracing the crude familiar gags we’ve come to expect from Judge, but also delivering on the clever stuff too. And that’s not to say that Judge hasn’t written clever comedy before. What is brilliant about him is that he’s really a man who uses both sides of his brain when writing; the lower common denominator comedy and the more cognitive, smart comedy. Silicon Valley probably leans more towards the latter, and it’s all the better for that. Considering it’s essentially a show about computer nerds, it could have so easily fallen into traps that the likes of The Big Bang Theory unashamedly falls into week in, week out. But, for the most part, it doesn’t, and that’s a very good thing indeed.
The premise is a young employee (Richard, played by Thomas Middleditch) working at Microsoft-esque digital mega-corporation Hooli who accidentally creates a compression algorithm that could be revolutionary in the world of computing. The big boss man of Hooli, Gavin Benson, offers him 10 million dollars for his code, but Richard instead decides to go with another investor, brilliant oddball Peter Gregory who offers him a substantially smaller amount for a percentage in his company. This allows Richard to stay in control of his company, Pied Piper and employee his incubation friends and co-workers to build the product from the ground up.
The team are a group of vibrant characters, each super nerdy in their own way, and each pretty hilarious in their own way too. Martin Starr stars as Gilfoyle, a character which very much resembles the character he played on Party Down a few years back; droll, sarcastic, and well, a Satanist! Kumail Nanjiani plays Dinesh, who is almost the token Indian nerd; a good programmer who’s still with the ladies leave a bit to be desired. Zach Woods (best known as Gabe from the Office) plays Jarred; a fidgety, weird but smart in his own way kinda’ guy, who handles the business-y elements of Pied Piper. T. J. Miller plays Erlich Bachman, perhaps the funniest character on the show. A self-proclaimed Jesus who is completely up his own arse, but feels like it’s warranted. It’s his arrogance and confidence that provides the show with some the best awkwardness, and it’s a stark contrast to the likes of Richard, who is a lot more timid and modest than he. They play off each other fairly well, as do the rest of the main cast as a whole.
As pointed out, one of the reasons why the show hits the right notes is it’s balance between crude and clever humour. It delivers the sort of jokes about one character being turned on by another’s code and jokes about “how fast you could jerk off all the dicks in the room”, and they are thrown at us at a nice pace, making it entirely possible to leave viewers smiling ear to ear for the duration of an episode, or indeed the season as a whole. It’s pleasantly surprising just how witty the show is, and being produced by HBO gives it the sort of freedom to go places that network sitcoms aren’t allowed to go. It’s worth noting too that the show isn’t strictly a “sitcom”, although it might appear that way on first glance. There’s some drama in there too, albeit ridiculous and larger than life, but it’s there. And the show is heavily serialised too, something which would make it much more difficult for more casual viewers to jump in and out of, but will reward dedicated TV viewers myself who thrive on such serialisation.
The season pans out at a slow-enough pace, with Pied Piper being put to the test on several occasions. There’s plenty of bumps along the way, with name changes, idea changes, coding errors and of course their main competitor, Hooli, who had stumbled across some of Richard’s algorithm code and have decided to rebrand it as their own, making it bigger and better. By the end of the season, both Hooli and Pied Piper are performing at a software competition and after Hooli’s crowd-pleasing presentation proves that their product is superior to Richard’s, he decides to “pivot” his idea into something even more exciting. The season ends right there, setting up plenty of thick plot-fuel for season two. It’s a show with great wit delivered by a good cast of oddballs, and the heavily serialised nature of the show makes it actually quite exciting and definitely addictive, as if it were created to be binge-watched. Silicon Valley is another worthy recent addition to HBO’s increasingly brilliant catalogue of programming, and will hopefully grace our screens for quite a few seasons yet.
Wonderful Coincidence of the day: If there’s a fictional character who deserves a grandiose statue, it’s Parks & Recreation's Ron Swanson. Someone on Reddit posted this photo of a statue found in Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre, which bares a startling resemblance to Nick Offerman’s moustachieod begrudging government worker, albeit in Roman garb. It turns out it’s actually a likeness of legendary Philadelphia actor Edwin Forrest… either that or Offerman is a Time Lord.
For the first time in what feels like an age, the Emmy voters have managed to shake up the nominations for the 2014 awards, but only by a little bit. But, hey, isn’t a little bit of a shake up better than having pretty much the same nominations year in, year out? I don’t envy the Emmy voters. Even as a regular punter who just watches TV for fun, and occasionally for work, I find it extraordinarily difficult to keep on top of all the shows going on that might have a chance at grabbing themselves an Emmy nom. I’m pretty far behind on Boardwalk Empire, I still haven’t even started the latest season of Hannibal, and I’ve only just caught up with Trophy Wife, so goodness knows how the Emmy voters try and cram everything in to make a decision.
But there are still some problems with the Emmy nominations, and they’re blatantly obvious this year. Of course, TV is now moving into completely different realms, with the non-traditional viewing methods of Netflix and Amazon Prime (which, no doubt, will be accepted more willingly thanks to the successes of the likes of Orange Is The New Black) and with network TV finally being considered as worthy as their cable siblings thanks to stellar seasons of The Good Wife and (apparently) Hannibal, but there are some nominations placed in the oddest categories. It is a common phenomenon, moving a show or an actor into a less crowded category to give them a bigger chance of winning, but it does also make it look like the Emmys have no clue what a show actually is. But before we get on to more specifics, let’s break down each of the main categories, shall we?
Let’s start with the big guns, Outstanding Drama Series. There’s not much surprise in this category, the biggest being that apparently people are still giving a shit about Upstairs, Downstairs…I mean…Downton Abbey. Even the people that are still watching it don’t seem to care that much about it. Homeland has finally been given the boot after a pretty awful last season to be replaced by True Detective which, from the outset, was always going to be a shoe in for a nomination with such big names on board. It is odd, however, that True Detective has wormed its way into the Outstanding Drama Series category despite it essentially being a miniseries. Both Fargo and American Horror Story, which follow the same anthology style True Detective is set to follow, have been submitted as miniseries. It makes the Drama series category pretty crowded and has also led to a fair few big snubs. The Good Wife had one of its best seasons yet, The Americans had an incredibly strong start and has only grown since its first season, as did Hannibal yet all have been passed over in favour of the kind-of-blotchy second season of House Of Cards. Christ, if you want a schlocky political drama, chuck Scandal in there. There’s definitely a lot of squatting going on here, keeping much better shows out, but that’s just how the Emmys work. Although Mad Men has had a pretty brilliant last season so far, the real race is probably between Breaking Bad and True Detective; the veteran finally throwing in the towel and the rookie already making a scene. Whilst I did enjoy True Detective, for me, it just doesn’t stack up to the final season of Breaking Bad which was as intense as the tracking shot in True Detective but spread out over a whole half season of edge of your seat tension.
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, aka, which actor is going to beat Jon Hamm to an Emmy is also pretty typical. Jeff Daniels is a pretty weird nomination seeing as, although he makes a decent effort of trying to make a pretty poorly written character interesting, The Newsroom is pretty damn awful. Swap him out for Matthew Rhys and his terrible disguises (but great acting) in The Americans or even Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal and I’d be happy. Jon Hamm, at this point, probably just goes along to the Emmys for the booze and food (although he might have a shot at it next year if they submit the final half season what with Cranston finally out and no Harrelson and McConaughey). Again, as with drama series, it seems nicest to give it to Cranston as a final hurrah for his role as one TV’s greatest characters but then again both Harrelson and McConaughey brought their big screen acting chops to the small screen and did it with great aplomb. Even though True Detective’s story was a bit ropey, it was the chemistry between those two that kept it so interesting.
Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series is also pretty standard fare with yet more nominations for Claire Danes’ cry face and Kerry Washington for getting shit done while having sexy times all the time. It also features a nice nod for Lizzy Caplan who blew everyone away in Masters Of Sex, though it is the only major nom for a brilliant show which came along nicely as Breaking Bad finished, working as almost a palate cleanser for the intensity of Breaking Bad’s final half season. Julianna Margulies is my pick for this category because, even in the worst episodes of The Good Wife, she’s always been utterly captivating, particularly recently. My only major issue with this category is the complete lack of Tatiana Maslany in her half a dozen roles on Orphan Black. Even from that first season, she was the reason why the general absurdity of Orphan Black worked, because she managed to flip from one clone to the next with such ease, each clone as interesting and complex as the last. It’s kind of understandable why she, and Orphan Black in general, was mostly passed over given the Emmys not being too big on sci-fi, particularly on a channel such as BBC America.
It’s kind of getting a bit samey now, you guys. Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series is basically last year’s selection with Jon Voight thrown in for some reason. Peter Dinklage has a pretty good chance in this category this year, particularly if voters are considering this past season which was packed full of scenes that are perfect for an Emmy sizzle reel (the end of Tyrion’s trial being one of the major ones in which he spits his words out with such venom and loathing, it’s electric). But, then again, as with Cranston there’s always the chance that they might give it to Aaron Paul who already has two awards to his name to see him home and making him suffer with people asking him to say “bitch” in the street for just a little bit longer. The biggest omission here is another Breaking Bad alum, Dean Norris, who had always been Breaking Bad’s secret weapon that was finally brought out in this final season with superb results. Maybe he’ll get something soon for Under The Dome and we can pretend it’s for Breaking Bad? Nah, probably not.
Lena Headey finally being given some nod for her fantastic work in Game Of Thrones makes the Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series category actually pretty good. Maggie Smith is obviously there (because duh!) and both Christina Hendricks and Christine Baranski return after respective stellar seasons, particularly for Hendricks in Mad Men. The real winner here, though, is going to be Anna Gunn and we all know it really. You just need to watch Skyler through one episode of Breaking Bad’s final season, “Ozymandias” especially, to know this is basically on lock for her.
Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series needs to go to Reg E Cathey who was actually given something to do in the last season of House Of Cards and was, without a doubt, the best thing about the otherwise patchy season. I would be happy, however, with Dylan Baker taking it home for The Good Wife seeing as he is consistently my favourite guest star on the show to the point where I get overly excited when I see his name in the opening credits. He’s so brilliantly slimy and loaded with black humour, transforming the show into a whole other beast for an episode. Similarly, Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series has a pretty obvious winner in Diana Rigg who swooped into Game Of Thrones and added so much sass and shade it was like watching a medieval special episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Eye rolling, sarcasm and just out-and-out disdane for people, Diana Rigg transformed the Queen of Thorns into the most fascinating character who stole any scene she was a part of, especially when paired with Charles Dance and the two chewed away at the scenery like hungry termites.
Outstanding Comedy Series is where things start to get a little interesting, and also a little bit weird. Of course we have The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family because do you even fucking follow this damn awards show? But then we also have Silicon Valley of all things. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed its first season but it did definitely feel like it was still trying to find its feet. Still, more to Mike Judge et al for making such an impact straight away. Veep gets a nod too, particularly after its frankly incredible last season which was just packed with incredible jokes and fantastic performances, and even Louie gets a shout out, though I feel that it’s more of a “look at who arty we can be. It’s not gonna win, we just want to you to know that us Emmy lot are cool too!” nomination than anything else, though it’s nice to see it get a nod for an interesting last season. The confusion in this category comes from the placement of Orange Is The New Black. Sure it can be funny as hell but it can quickly turn into something altogether very bleak, particularly post-the Tricia incident in its first season. Although, being placed in the comedy category it might have more of a chance of the victory it rightly deserves for being one of the best damn shows of probably all time. Overlooked in this category, though, is the stellar Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which came out running creating what felt like one of the most confident premiere seasons in a long time. It already surprised by taking home the Golden Globe so it seemed like a sure thing that it would grab an Emmy nod but apparently not. Broad City also managed to get overlooked despite being one of my favourite comedies of this past year but, then again, I don’t decide these bloody things, do I?
Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series is a pretty awful category by most accounts. As with Orange Is The New Black, Shameless is apparently now being classed as a comedy but I suppose it does move William H Macy out of the pretty hefty Lead Actor in a Drama Series category, making it a bit easier for him. Jim Parsons is back, obviously, and will probably run away with it again but I would like to see Louis CK win it just so he’d go up in stage in his signature black t-shirt instead of a fancy suit.
With Amy Poehler, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Lena Dunham, and Edie Falco, Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series is a pretty strong category with all pretty deserving of the award, but I would quite like to see Poehler take home the Emmy despite the last season of Parks & Recreation being neither here nor there. Julia Louis Dreyfus is probably going to take it, though, and I’m pretty OK with that. Taylor Schilling for Orange Is The New Black is pointless, though, because she definitely is not a lead in that show. OITNB is an ensemble show through and through and is held up by its stellar supporting cast.
Andre Braugher or we riot! Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series is a pretty great category too, with yet more Tony Hale who really does deserve any praise he gets for his role in Veep, but Andre Braugher is the true stand out here who showed that the once hard-boiled detective in Homicide: Life On The Street had some proper comedy chops in Brooklyn Nine-Nine as the deadpan police captain who is a constant highlight. His nomination kind of makes up for the snub of the show itself but only a little bit. Adam Driver might also have a shot, given that he actually had a fair bit to do in this last season of Girls, though nothing will really beat the Adam-centric episode, “Boys”, which was a highlight of Season 2. Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series does see a fair bit of shaking up occurring, with both Sofia Vergara and Jane Lynch being replaced by Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live’s real MVP, and Kate Mulgrew. I have never seen Mums but I really just want Alison Janney to win it because I love Alison Janney! That’s a good enough reason to want someone to win something, right? Of course it is!
Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series is a pretty unexciting category, though Steve Buscemi’s nom for his role as a man tasked with making celery cool again in Portlandia is truly inspired. I would, however, like to see Gary Cole take this home for Veep who, although didn’t have much to do this past season, was always a treat when he popped up on screen. Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series this year should just be renamed “Which OITNB star is going to win it” because, let’s be fair, they pretty much all deserve it. If they could do a Sports Personality of the Year 2012 and just an award to the entire cast like they did the entire GB Olympic team, then I’d be more than happy, but it definitely is a tough fight between Uzo Aduba, Natasha Lyonne, and Laverne Cox.
Having True Detective in another category has hopefully made things much easier for a Fargo Outstanding Miniseries win. It doesn’t have much competition, its main rival probably being American Horror Story who pop up every year to no avail. The White Queen and Bonnie & Clyde aren’t likely to put up a fight and Luther’s last season wasn’t exactly amazing compared to its previous two, so I have my fingers crossed for Fargo which is one of my favourite shows of 2014 so far. I don’t know much about the Outstanding TV Movie category, but apparently one episode of Sherlock counts as a TV movie? Crazy Americans!
Martin Freeman sees himself with a nomination for both Oustanding Lead Actor and Oustanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie for Fargo and Sherlock respectively. Though his dodgy American accent in Fargo might let him down in the Lead Actor category, as well as facing off with his co-star Billy Bob Thornton whose performance was a highlight of that show for me, he might have a chance as John Watson, though there is such a glut of nominees from The Normal Heart (nope, no idea) that law of averages means one of those will probably win. Colin Hanks does get his first nom for Fargo which is nice (cause he definitely wasn’t going to get it for Dexter now, was he?)
Today I learned that Kristen Wiig was apparently in a miniseries. The Oustsanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or Movie category is slightly lost on me because I haven’t seen any of the shows in it but I like Jessica Lange and she always looks pretty frightening in AHS so I’ll plump for her. Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Movie is all about Allison Tolman in Fargo, though, who came along and just stole everyone’s hearts. She is, however, facing up against some big names such as Kathy Bates and Julia fucking Roberts but I have every appendage crossed that Tolman wins this one so she can give a no doubt adorable speech.
To finish off, we need to talk about the biggest snub of this Emmy season. Forget The Good Wife, forget Orphan Black, forget Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it’s an absolute travesty that RuPaul’s Drag Race was passed over for Outstanding Reality-Competition Program. My first experience with RuPaul’s Drag Race was this past season when I finally decided to take the plunge into the sequin and shade filled pool and became well and truly obsessed. I have since become an ardent supporter of the show and so to see it ignored in favour of Top Chef (which also managed to knock out Masterchef US as well!) is terrible Emmy news.
It is pretty difficult to try recognise every show equally (love you Broad City, you’re a winner in my heart) but this year’s nominations have some pretty crazy omissions and it does find itself stuck in a bit of a rut despite being open to new entrants. Still, come August 25th, we will still all watch it and complain when our favourites won’t win and I’ll just be sat in the corner waving my Broad City flag in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, some last minute surprise might occur and they win. Maybe.
I could definitely sit in a circle of people and announce that “Hi, my name is Megan and I am a binge watcher”. I binge watched all of Arrested Development in a month to get ready for the new season last year, the time I binge watched season one ofOrange Is The New Black in time for season two, the time I binge watched and binge drank through an entire series of Workaholics in a night for a drinking game with friends. One summer I got as addicted to Breaking Bad in the same way you imagine people got addicted to Heisenberg’s blue crystal, and was managing an episode before work with breakfast and three episodes in an evening. This isn’t even uncommon behaviour; chances are if you’re in your late teens or early twenties and taking the time to read this, then you too are binge watcher. There’s even a verb for this activity now: netflixing (as in “sorry, I won’t make it to the party tonight. I’m netflixing”).
The way we watch TV now is different to the way we watched it twenty or even just ten years ago. As it was explained to me in an early first year university lecture, the way that programmes are set out in the TV guide is strategic to keep hold of an audience member’s viewing, which media scholar Raymond Williams termed as the “flow”. The “flow” of an evening’s viewing was essentially chosen by the viewer (for example, Emmerdale on ITV followed by Eastenders on BBC if you’re a soap lover), but was heavily influenced by the channels and networks. Back in the dark ages, when there was only a choice of three or four channels, keeping a certain flow of an audience member was relatively easy, and there were very limited possibilities as to what an evening’s viewing could look like. But this “flow” model of viewing has significantly changed; it was managed not only by limited channels but by time: you used to only be able to watch something that was on at 8:30pm at 8:30pm on those specific nights (bar repeats). A growing number of channels meant an increase in option, but since the growth of satellite and cable services in the 1990s and the emergence of TV-on-demand services, when we watched television and for how long became less in the power of the networks and channels and more in the power of the viewer. An evening’s viewing that once was a linear and chronological flow was gone, as viewers could pause, rewind, skip ahead and watch a show from an entirely different day, week, month or even year. On Demand viewing is now becoming an increasing thorn in the paw for broadcast television, especially the BBC, whose revenue comes from TV licensing fees as opposed to advertising, as you don’t need a TV licence if you’re watching TV on demand as opposed to live.
That covers the emergence of viewer control and on-demand that changed traditional TV, but what about the ‘culture’ of binge-watching? To that, I point the finger at box sets. At some point around the early 2000s the idea of spending a night in with a boxset of TV series began, and so did consuming it as quickly as possible. Even box sets are becoming somewhat obsolete now, because when you think about it, other than flimsy special features, what is the point of shelling out £20 or more for a load of DVDs of a show when you can find it on streaming site like Netflix for £5 a month or (not condoning this, if the authorities happen to be reading this) on line for free off illegal streaming sites? All those Friends DVD cases you have piled up somewhere begin to feel a bit pointless.
Then, of course, there is Netflix. Ah, Netflix. The streaming service that for a small fee practically encourages you to binge-watch instead of going out to see your best friend or have some kind of human interaction. They even queue up the next episode for you after you’ve finished the last, so you don’t even have to bother with tiresome clicking. I have a love/hate relationship with Netflix, and a strange fascination of how streaming sites have changed our viewing of film and TV. Recently, Netflix have begun a new strategy of releasing all their original content programming (the foremost of which are the very popular shows Arrested Development, Orange Is The New Black and House Of Cards) a whole series at a time. Because of Netflix’s net-based format (unlike the BBC or other public broadcasters) they can do that. And it’s an excellent idea for generating a few weeks of sudden frenzy around the programme as binge-watchers do their best to get through the show as quickly as possible. I’m going to start calling this the “new Harry Potter book effect”, after memories of powering through JK Rowling’s final novels in the wizardry series on very little sleep beginning the day of their release. It works short term, and creates a massive buzz, but it does not give you the slow-burning narratives and in-depth weekly discussion of a TV show, which accompanies the likes of Game Of Thrones and Mad Men, amongst others.
Ultimately, binge-watching is not inherently bad. Some may argue that it is convenient and inevitable in the increasingly fast paced society that everyone likes to point the finger at. But, to use the very loose analogy, it’s like your grandma giving you a bag of sweets and telling you to “when they’re gone, they’re gone” and “not eat them all at once because you’ll ruin your dinner”. If something is quick to access, gives you pleasure and you have lots of it at your disposal, then it is up to the individual to use self-control. The problem is, I’ve “ruined my dinner” of TV for myself thanks to binge-watching. Going back to Breaking Bad; when I was watching episode after episode, I began to notice patterns in the plot of each one and started thinking that they were all basically the same. Which isn’t at all true, the episodes of Breaking Bad are diverse and complex in plot, and if I revisited the series at a slower pace I’m sure I’d appreciate it more. Series that I have been raving about to my friends a few weeks before never get finished, because I got bored with them. My gripe with binge-watching is “this isn’t how TV was supposed to be consumed”. Call me a traditionalist if you must, but I’m not rushing to cancel my Netflix subscription. I will however be trying to get back on a balanced diet of weekly TV, with an occasional binge watch… that is, until Netlfix releases the next season of Orange Is The New Black.
It’s no secret that Californication has outstayed its welcome. A show that started out full of energy and wit has become more and more tired each year, with rehashed, predictable plots forked out every season, tweaked slightly enough to make it feel new. Last season is particularly worth mentioning as the lowest point in the series, and after watching it I really didn’t think I could sustain one final season. The good news is, I did manage to sit through it. In one day, actually. The main reason for this is that I’m the sort of guy who likes to see shows ‘till the very end, and quite frankly, I think there are worse ways to spend a day than marathoning Californication. Despite it’s predictability and ever-growing stupidity, there’s something charming about it that will ensure I will remember it fondly in years to come.
This season finally takes Hank Moody (David Duchovny) to the television business, being hired as a writer on a network sitcom tripe “Santa Monica Cop”. It seems like the show has brought Hank to just about every possible medium, it seemed only fitting that the final season would see him take a stab at television. After the horrible rock-star/musical themed season 6, the TV thing comes as much more watchable; a huge part of that is due to one of this season’s main guest stars Michael Imperioli (best known as Christopher from The Sopranos) as Hank’s new boss/friend Rick Rath. Anyone would’ve been easier on the eyes and ears than Season 6’s Tim Minchin, and it’s an added bonus that Imperioli is a complete pro. He makes for a reasonably interesting and more importantly, tolerable character.
There isn’t much thickness to the TV business plot; it’s really mostly filler and a way to introduce some new characters. It is interesting though that the very things the writers room seem to make fun of about network television are some of the same traps that Californication itself falls into. I would call it “meta”, but Californication isn’t that clever of a show. At least, it’s not anymore.
One of the other main guest roles this year is Heather Graham who shows up as a woman who Hank had a one-night stand with twenty years ago, and more importantly is the Mother to Hank’s first son. It’s something that struck me as a silly plot twist originally; the idea of Hank having a 21 year old son who he’s never met, but then again, knowing Hank Moody as well as we do by now, it feels very plausible indeed, at least within the realm of overly-exaggerated Californication universe. Graham at first seems to be no more than one of Hank’s alternate flames this season. Yet another woman who will distract him from what he really wants; Karen. But what I began to realize is that she puts Hank to the test. She shows up with news of his son, and she’s all flirtatious and such, but in the end (after a few rocky parts), Hank comes through for her and his son, in a way that seems much more mature than the Hank we used to know.
And on the subject of his new son, Levine, that’s the main reason for him showing up too this season; to let us see how Hank has grown as a character. Levine is one of the worst characters the show has produced. He’s loud, he’s stupid, he’s morally wrong most of the time, he’s terribly unfunny and, worst of all, he’s disappointingly but not surprisingly two-dimensional. Despite all of this, Hank almost immediately steps up to the task of being this man-child’s father. He seems to genuinely care for the boy and he even goes out of his way to make him happy. It’s not everyday Hank Moody does things for other people, but in this season, he seems to do a lot of it. He’s growing up, and that much is obvious.
I guess you could say the main sub-plot of the season revolves around Charlie and Marcy’s relationship being put to the test. As broke newlyweds (again), they are forced with some difficult decisions to make, and the biggest test of their relationship to date comes in the latter half of the season when ex-husband Stu shows up and offers a million dollars to sleep with Marcy. It’s a ludicrous plot, but again, it’s nothing we haven’t come to expect on a show as silly as Californication. It offers few laughs and even fewer surprises, but it’s still nice to see the couple come through it strong in the end. As expected, pretty much every character gets their happy ending this season. Hank, after years of on/off pursuing Karen, finally puts his deepest thoughts into a love letter and we can only assume wins her over for good this time; Levine finally knocks his hooker habit and finds a nice girl; Julia is set up with Hank’s boss Rick, while Stu seems to live quite contentedly with his Marcy replica sex-doll. Even Becka shows up in the final two episodes to announce that she’s marrying that Rossco guy from last season. It’s all terribly uninspired and cheesy, but it kind of works.
The main downfall in the season is the severe lack of humour. Yes, they certainly try to be funny, but whoever’s laughing watching this crap, I’m not one of them. It’s a real shame that the crude humour has dominated the show for the past couple of seasons. It’s always been a show filled with crudeness and wit, but lately, the wit’s really been lacking. It’s a pity too, because Tom Kapinos (writer of every single episode of the show), like Moody, can really write when he wants to. And there are certainly instances in this season when his wit shines through and Duchovny knocks it out of the park, but it’s only a handful of times to be honest, and it’s not like the early days when the show had much more charm and originality. In spite of the re-hashed plots and the predictable conclusions, this season had enough life in it for me to actually rather enjoy it, especially as it follows at least two seasons preceding that were borderline television suicide. At the end of the day, Hank Moody has been the core of the show, and David Duchovny has made it watchable for years. Californication is ultimately his show, and because of that, I’ll remember it fondly.
The world’s population increases rapidly year on year, to the point where, in the relatively near future it likely won’t be sustainable. But if 2% of that population were to suddenly vanish without warning or explanation right now, the world would kinda go to shit, wouldn’t it? That’s some heavy emotional trauma to endure, and not only that, but those people’s various jobs and responsibilities are now vacant, a fairly sizeable gap in society even if 98% of us still remain.
This is the premise of HBO’s The Leftovers, which seems to sit somewhere between an inverted Les Revenants and the multitude of Rapture-based media of the last decade or so. Focusing in on the small, fictional town of Mapleton, NY three years after the event, the show is splintered into follow the residents and their various solutions to coping with what happened. But there’s no closure for the citizens of Mapleton, no “they’re in a better place”, “they’re in heaven”, or “they’re just worm food now”. One in 50 people just up and instantly disappeared without a trace, with no indication what the hell happened to them. That’s gotta fuck with your mind, regardless of how mentally strong or gleefully misanthropic you consider yourself to be.
It’s a great, intriguing premise, helped by a starry cast - Justin Theroux, Liv Tyler, Amy Brenneman, Christopher Eccleston, the twins off Desperate Housewives, Patterson Joseph (Johnson off Peep Show!) - and interesting kinks in the tail, such as the twist end to this pilot, and the rise of two separate cults; the white-clad, silent, constantly smoking Guilty Remnant and the more hedonistic followers of “The Holy Wayne”. There are some fantastic elements to this episode; some wonderful imagery and iconography (the aforementioned Guilty Remnant, formerly domesticated dogs turning feral without anyone to care for them), a soundtrack including “Vladimir’s Blues” by Max Richter and James Blake’s “Retrograde”, and interesting character dynamics at play. A nice nugget of gallows humour is embedded in the show too, if you couldn’t tell from the ridiculous commemorative statue unveiled in honour of “the heroes” (above) or that there’s a self-proclaimed messiah called Wayne.
But the show isn’t quite fully-formed yet. The opening sequence in which the event is shown is corny as hell, and pretty much every character seems to be moved by plot rather than their own motivations. There’s a danger of the central mystery of what happened and why overtaking the stories of the people we’re watching; we should care about them as much as we do about the event, possibly even more. As it stands, watching yet another rugged, tattooed, sensitive white dude protagonist silently brood is only going hold attentions for a short while, and with a number of one-dimensional characters (including utterly dull teenagers doing the whole “immoral, horny idiots” schtick that a lot of teen characters in the media perpetuate) around him, answers or mythology building and much needed. Without them, The Leftovers could well collapse in on itself. An apparent expert at a congressional hearing is heard on a television in the background saying “God sat this one out”, and without some figurative crumbs of an explanation over the remaining nine episodes, viewers may well do the same.
However, the major mark counting against The Leftovers is the involvement of Damon Lindelof as executive producer and writer on every episode in the first season. Lindelof’s name has been tainted ever so slightly to audiences by the furore over Lost and the poor quality of Prometheus, both of which tended the nonsensical and didn’t exactly deliver on resolutions. Viewers may not want to trust another few years of their media-experiencing lives to another loose-ended Lindelof tale. Despite being being an adaptation of Tom Perotta’s 2004 novel, there’s no guarantee of the show following its source material to the letter - as is the case with pretty much every page-to-screen process - instead perhaps choosing to weave its own tapestry in an attempt to stretch the premise out over several seasons (HBO already has big critical & commercial successes in the winter and spring schedules with True Detective and Game Of Thrones, so it stands to reason they wouldn’t mind a big marquee drama to extend this into summer for a few years).
The Leftovers is definitely worth a spot in your TV-watching routine - especially with a dearth of quality over the summer - but even with this good start, the show is on shaky footing, possibly either becoming a new Lost-esque phenomenon or another FlashForward.
It seems almost impossible to recap the fourth season of Game Of Thrones, given the sheer volume of scandal, sex, murder, dragons and unnecessary violence against women therein contained. We saw faces old and new, including fan favourite Oberyn Martell (brilliantly played by Pedro Pascal) and his paramour Ellaria Sand (Luther’s Indira Varma). We saw more of the wall, more of Essos, more of pretty much everything, good and bad.
There were a couple of vintage episodes - “Oathkeeper” and “First Of His Name” served up a pretty satisfying sequence of episodes, though “Breaker Of Chains” was a horrendous clusterfuck of bad ideas (though perhaps deviation from the books is a good thing, so is taking it easy on the misogynistic and repeated attacks on women - just a thought) and some dull filler in the shape of “The Laws Of Gods And Men”.
By and large, though, Game Of Thrones continues to be “the new Lord Of The Rings” and I would guess it benefits largely from an audience who watched that trilogy at a young age now hitting their young adulthood, meaning the blend of more cerebral medieval fantasy and - for lack of a better term - sexy politics is probably just right for the audience it’s definitely intended for, though its appeal is much much broader. The most LOTR-esque episode so far, and one of the tremendous set pieces which Game Of Thrones is quickly making its own, was “The Watchers On The Wall”, a superb hour-long action sequence set at Castle Black, with plenty of sword fighting and macho emotion to whet fans’ appetites, including a superb one shot scene as the camera pans across the entire castle as it becomes engulded in battle.
Fans were understandably disappointed when the show made some notable departures from the book, though it stands to reason that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss want to make this as much their creation as the George R.R. Martin books that inspired it - and for some of the departures it can be seen as streamlining and for others it’s for the sake of avoiding A Song Of Ice And Fire’s prosaic exposition in favour of easier to understand and more economic story movements. There’s also the fact that Benioff and Weiss are getting ever closer to catching up with Martin’s books and overtaking him, forcing their hand in making diversions from the source material.
The finale, “The Children”, was a gasper - plenty of cogs once again set in motion for the next season, including a couple of massive location changes which could herald a much more unique-looking fifth season. The series is building steam in unprecedented quantity and Season Five will no doubt be bigger, bolder and more expensive looking. Winter is coming.