Archives for category: drama

Such is the power of Netflix, seasons may change their name to some of its biggest hits new release dates. Spring will become House of Cards, although quite how that will pan out following recent events we can only guess. Summer will be Orange is the New Black. Autumn so obviously is Stranger Things. And winter can only possible be named The Crown.

The Crown lends itself to the headlong rush to the festive season in the same way Downton Abbey did. No matter if the setting is high summer, there is something about the sumptuousness of the clothes, the stodginess of the food and the innate cosy feeling mixed with a dash of grimness of the architecture that it is always winter psychologically – both in positive ways and negative.

The Crown is possibly my favourite of all Netflix productions because, in its own slightly stodgy way, it tells us how the personal and political will always intertwine, yet appear to lead separate lives. A personal foible of a politician setting a train of events from which there becomes no escape. How those events can speed up or instigate social change, or at times try and be a last defence against it.

The first two episodes of the new season demonstrate this. Episode one may begin with a royal marriage on the rocks and be threaded throughout with suspicions of adultery, but it is the Suez Crisis that is a focal point and the vanity of those who instigated it. Already the Queen is faced with the challenging of being a stable fulcrum around which the men who serve her in government flail, grasping for power and a legacy.

Episode two sheds more light on the relationship between the Queen and Prince Philip, as the latter constantly battles to form his own identity. He is a navy man, happier in the company of men and physical pursuits, revelling in what one character calls ‘a six-month stag night’. Along the way, we see what formed him into an unemotional man who perhaps struggles with the idea of being part of a family. It takes the rumour of a private secretary’s own adulteries to remind him of his duty to his wife and children, and even then we still have not returned to the crescendo of emotions that opened the season.

Claire Foy and Matt Smith embody the slowly changing personalities wonderfully. She, slowly gaining in confidence to question the men in power; him, relinquishing his need to control. And then there is the cast who surrounds them – Vanessa Kirby still steals the show as Princess Margaret, giving us this seasons must-have GIF for all party goers over the festivities.

There are no doubt faults, but quite frankly I don’t want to dig for them. For all the harsh realities that this show portrays – the limited status of women and the decline of Britain to name two – it is still a warm blanket that envelops you. This is why it is perfect winter viewing, it wraps you up and brings you comfort. Which is exactly what we need.

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One of the signs you are getting old is the fact that the decade you were born in can be classed as ‘period drama’. How you define this genre is debatable – I personally would argue that anything sans bonnet and breaches is modern – but it appears that the 80’s are now a valid historical setting.

Perhaps there is a need for a string whiff of nostalgia for a past time that qualifies an era for that term. It is certainly nostalgia that drives Stranger Things 2. The detail it employs is beautiful if a little clichéd. The mullets, the double denim, the perms, the knitwear – all mockable yet slightly revered. And then there’s the pop culture references, with the excitement of electronic music and a new wave of sci-fi.

Anybody over 35 could spend the show simply ticking off things from their childhood and not pay any attention to the plot. Which is possibly a good thing as, let’s be honest, it feels very slow. Bar a few hallucinations it has taken four episodes to give us anything approaching chills, and that came from breaking the golden rule of ‘Don’t Kill the Cat’.

If anything, it is proving its strength as a coming of age story meets social drama. The introduction of Max as someone mixing up the fraternity of teenage boys is a good example of this. She also comes with her own mini-mystery, which I find more enthralling than the ones that are supposed to be taking centre stage. Ditto, the pseudo father-daughter relationship between Hopper and El is more honest when it isn’t enthralled to El’s telekinesis.

The comedy also appears to be stronger this time round and is very much appreciated. It comes as a relief to what would otherwise be a very bleak landscape of decaying pumpkins, small-town claustrophobia and paranoia.

Which brings me back to the central problem I have – I don’t know if I care too much about the mysteries being solved or the tension/horror heightened. What are the vines that the scientists are killing about? Why are the pumpkins decaying? Who is number 008 and are there others? None of these matter to me personally as a viewer, bar maybe the last puzzle.

It’s a sign the Duffer Brothers were relying on our binge watch habits to put 008 in at the start of the season and not mention her again for at least four episodes. As a non-binge watcher I have spotted this flaw. Not all of us want to digest all nine episodes in one go and we deserve a reward for our more episodic viewing habits.

Yet, despite these many issues, I am compelled to watch on, not least because this is the show everyone is talking about, be it good or bad. Next month it will be The Crown. Perhaps that is the secret of Netflix’s success – it doesn’t matter how good the show actually is, so long as it gets enough mentions on social media to draw more moths to the flame. You can only hope that quality is going to be a second thought.

On a recent episode of 8 Out of 10 Cats does Countdown Jimmy Carr made a barb at Fay Ripley, describing Cold Feet as the UK’s answer to Friends if the question was ‘What’s not quite as good as Friends?’ Ripley jumped to the show’s defence, pointing out that at least her show was still going. This does, however, ignore the massive gap between the original series ending and the comeback last year.

Even so, it does seem silly to compare the two shows, longevity aside. Friends was always a sitcom, Cold Feet a comedy-drama, and one of the rare ones that could pull off both at that. Yes, there were six people navigating relationships and careers in both with a significant ‘will they/won’t they’ dynamic’, but that’s where it ends.

I find Cold Feet to be one of the best-plotted shows on TV. It’s a tricky thing giving five (R.I.P. Rachel) central characters enough room for each story to breathe whilst still maintaining a group dynamic and allowing side characters to have their moments. The cleverly demarcated flashback scenes, where some of the group tell the rest what happened whilst we are shown it, is used just the right amount and with both humorous and dramatic effect. Jen and Pete’s sex tape scene was brilliantly comedic and tellingly honest about the gap between expectation and reality in our approach to sex.

I must admit to being nervous when they introduced the teenage pregnancy storyline where Karen and David’s daughter became pregnant by Adam’s son. This is a plot that has been done far too much in soaps and the like and you would struggle to find an original angle. Yet it did. The discussions around abortion were mature and focused on Olivia’s wish to have control over her body and Matt’s naïve belief he could rise to the challenge of fatherhood at just 16. The scene at the clinic was perfection and a lesson in understatement, a young girl facing the reality of her choices an everyone all so quiet and hushed, the fragility of the moment encapsulated merely in a tone of voice.

In truth, all the plots are absorbing. Jen facing the dilemma of reaching the peak of her career just as an ailing parent needs her most. David playing the night in shining armour to trapped Cheshire housewife. Karen risking everything to save her business. And, of course, Adam’s bumpy relationship with new squeeze Tina. I feel a bit sorry for Tina, as much in the centre of things as anyone yet still not given central cast status. Either let her be one of the gang or cut her loose. Otherwise she just becomes a side character who the viewers will never fully accept.

Cold Feet is a brilliant examination of life in your late forties and early fifties and is both funny and honest. Friends may never come back and tell us what happened next, but it doesn’t need to. Cold Feet is doing it better than anyone ever could.

I’m sure regular readers are all too aware of my love for Orange Is The New Black. I genuinely consider it to be on the most original shows out there. You can laugh your head off at one scene and be heartbroken by the next. And I have waxed lyrical about the diversity of the cast, but I will say it again for those at the back – this is THE show that waves the flag for diversity.

My love did dim a little last season. There was too much darkness, too much oppression, too many people at warm. OITNB is skilled at doing those little uplifting moments, but there were too few last time.

Yet this repressive atmosphere is what has led to the catatonic energy of season 5, which centres on a riot. The emotional explosions only work because so much was contained previously. It also is where the viewer gets a big payoff. We have followed these characters for quite some time now and know them. Seeing the breadth of reactions is powerful. We have the Hawaiian woman who chooses to hide, the meth heads who decide to become guards, and those who seek to exploit it purely for their own gain.

The humour is right back in full flow. Big Boo, so dislikeable at times early on, has become a one-liner machine and her growing friendship with Pennsatucky is one of the most rewarding sub-plots in the show. Meanwhile, Red on amphetamines has to be one of the most perfectly pitched pieces of slapstick I have seen.

The heartbreak is here too though. So-So’s reaction to Poussey’s death has been well played, subtle little moments of private grief interspersed with explosions of anger. It is a grief that burns away and eats you from the inside.

The star of this season though is Taystee. Having spent most of the first four seasons as a comedic foil or second-in-command, she is now the leader. She is the one who is driving through change. This isn’t just revenge on the guards, or even salvaging something from Poussey’s death. This is about changing the entire culture of the prison and restoring humanity. The failure of those outside to grasp this – both the media and the corporations – is a damning indictment of how fair minded those of us we consider ‘civilised’ actually are.

If I could make one change, it is that I feel that there are some stories still not being told. Take the Nazis, who suddenly appeared last season. Why are they who they are? Everyone else is given a reason for their behaviour, why not them? In making the case for diversity, is this show failing to explore the mind set of those who oppose it?

This show has always been a social commentary. It has, at times, lost this too soapiness and titillation. But this time, it seems to be pitched just right. This should be compulsory viewing for all those that think the private sector is the answer to our problems or that we can dehumanise sub-sections of our society without a cost. Yet they are the very people that will not watch it.

Scandi-noir has a lot to answer for, not least the plethora of pale imitations that it generates. Ditto Broadchurch, with its perfect representation of how a horrific crime can disrupt a small town. Combining these two sources is The Loch. It has the macabre deaths of Scandinavia and its dramatic but gloomy scenery with the small community of people with secrets of Broadchurch. Tartan noir mixed with McBroadchurch if you will.

We have the murder of a piano teacher, and now a local teenage tearaway, both dispatched slightly horrifically. Everyone has a reason to look suspicious, including the paedophile doctor and the ex-con living under a new name. A top DCI from the big city (Siobhan Finneran) is shipped in, upsetting local cops and bringing along with her a ‘celebrity forensic psychologist’. Oh, and there’s a man tied to the bottom of the loch that nobody has spotted yet.

It is as barking mad as it sounds. There’s the man being kept in a drugged coma by his mother, locals looking shifty at each other and random wolves popping up all over the place. It is as if the writers were given free rein to do whatever they like, but when it came to filming the budget kicked in and tripping over into the truly surreal Twin Peaks style was put on hold.

Nevertheless, despite (or maybe because of) its ludicrousness it is actually quite enjoyable. With nobody remotely acting guilt free we have a whole village of suspects, although if it is the local sergeant’s husband I will scream in despair. Once you acclimatise to it, the oddness becomes intriguing rather than distracting.

Of course, for me the making and breaking of crime drama is in how it handles the procedural stuff. This is where The Loch falls sadly short. The detectives seem to just barrel along, doing what the hell they like. If this ever makes it to court, the defence will have a field day with procedural errors. The whole case will collapse in the space of an afternoon. It didn’t have to be this way: Broadchurch, Line of Duty and even Scott & Bailey are proof you can talk procedure and keep the drama.

But maybe that’s the point – procedural dramas are already being done so well, why copy? Hang the technicals, forget the rules, and don’t even consider the paperwork. The eccentricities will be a distraction from all this.

Still, it wouldn’t hurt to hear a conversation about forms, or an interview of a suspect done with all the quiet suspense of the show’s rivals. It’s what a lot of us like. You don’t need to dial back the odd, just turn up the real.

It is often hard to work out who school-set dramas are pitched at. The teenage characters’ heady hormones are distant memories to many parents, while it is hard to imagine the younger generation being interested in storylines concerning the private lives of teachers. Both groups would feel that 50% of the show is uninteresting and a distraction from the stories that they do want to see.

Yet they are popular. The current horse from that stable is Ackley Bridge. It shares some key features with its predecessor Waterloo Road. Troubled school in a northern town. Plotlines that are soapy to the extreme. Relationships between teachers being every bit as rocky as those between the kids.

But Ackley Bridge is on Channel 4, so therefore is a little, but only a little closer to the edge in the social commentary it offers. For a start, this isn’t a comprehensive, but an academy. How much they explore the influence of ‘sponsors’ on how education is delivered remains to be seen, although there have been hints at it.

The big theme though is multi-culturism. This academy is formed from two previously segregated schools (not deliberately, just as a result of the postcode lottery our education system creates), one from a predominantly Asian community, the other largely white. The cultural conflicts form a major thrust of many of the storylines, whether it is exploring LGBT relationships in BME communities or the tension between assimilating into a nation whilst being proud of your religion.

There is some debate as to how much we should put these kind of issues through the soapy treatment shows like this create. It feels as if these issues are almost too big to be reduced to be mixed in with others plots like affairs. At the same time though, not everyone is going to watch a hard-hitting drama or searing documentary series, so if telling them the story through a slightly more trivial medium allows the message to spread wider then it is all to the good.

Of course, none of this matters if the show is rubbish. Well, it isn’t. Granted, I don’t love it. The headteacher-husband-sponsor love triangle is a bit too predictable, and I do wonder if there is perhaps one plot too many, making it hard to grasp on to any of the characters. But there are worthwhile storylines as well. Nasreen exploring her sexuality with the help of her friend Missy seems a strong seem to follow, and I’m intrigued enough to see where the Jordan Wilson plot goes to keep investing. Plus there is Sunetra Sarker playing the sassiest dinnerlady ever created.

At just six episodes, the first series may be too short to do it justice. But if it gets a second one, an extended run could help the show find its legs.

A while back I wrote about the first season of House of Cards. I was not impressed by it. I found the cynicism of the characters wearying and it was heaping yet more reasons for me to be concerned about the then forthcoming US election. Frank Underwood represented the worst of the career politicians that plague us both sides of the Atlantic. Success was for his ego, not the good of the country.

Since then, I have polished off the second season and got halfway through the third, and my view has altered somewhat. No doubt the drama of the real-life election being absent has helped, but I also feel I understand Frank and Claire more.

Take one of the smaller arcs from season 2 – the rise and fall of Freddie at the hands of Raymond Tusk. He is one of Frank’s few friends, and his destruction allows Frank to have a motivation that is more than about himself. From that point on, no matter how despicable he acts, we know Frank has an ability to be human. This buys him enough of your support to be more anti-hero than villain.

Likewise, season 3 has seen Claire’s character become more fleshed out. True, there were always more reasons to sympathise with her anyway – she seemed to use her ability to calculate against others more for good, and she is a rape survivor. But this season is the one where she truly stops just being a wife. She wants to make her mark on the world. Frank is driven by power, Claire by legacy. The most recent episode I viewed saw her hurt affected by the suicide of a gay activist. She throws politics overboard and shows an anger at injustice that is more than skin deep.

Of course there are other wheels turning. Heather Dunbar is on the rise as an opponent to Frank and we have Stamper aiding her cause. Then there’s the tracking down of Rachel through Gavin Orsay, although I am missing his scene-stealing guinea pig. One of the things I have come to like about Netflix’s shows is they aren’t afraid to ignore a major plotline for an episode, knowing their audience will patiently wait for it to return to the centre ground.

The one that is piquing me most at the moment though is Frank writing his autobiography. This, more than anything else, tells us who he is. He has come from nothing, and used ruthless ambition and eye for an opportunity, plus old-fashioned hard work, to get to the top. You still don’t like the man, you are never meant to, but you are forced to admire his journey. Maybe I can stick with this show after all.