Archives for posts with tag: mystery

Bar what is on Netflix, I avoid shows that are online only. I’m aware this makes me sound like a technophobe, but I like the old-fashioned concept of a TV. Similarly, I also demur from the binge watch, preferring to watch in manageable nuggets i.e. episodes.

As a result, I am rarely sucked into the ‘watch the first episode on TV, the rest online’ concept. But, at a loose end one evening, I notice E4 were showing the opening two episodes of Search Party, which had piqued my interest through its trailers and gone on my ‘may watch’ list. I assumed the entire series was being shown after previously being on All4 only, but that was not the case. So clearly those two episodes must be good enough to persuade you to dive straight into the rest of the series?

Well, maybe. I mean, the central mystery is decent enough, if fairly standard. Rich girl goes missing leaving a trail of cryptic clues, a character becomes determined to solve it and gets into danger along the way. I am a sucker for this sort of thing and will happily lap it up. Mystery dramas are the kind of trashy it is ok to love.

What throws Search Party off balance is that it is supposed to be a comedy as well. I have discussed before how much comedy is about making you laugh – you would think it is an obvious yes but not always. Even so, a comedy should be funny, even if it’s a recognition of something witty.

I’m struggling to find the comedy in this show. I mean, I can see which lines or set pieces are supposed to be funny, but I don’t find them amusing or even that clever.

The problem is the characters. I don’t like any of them. I’m not sure if they are an exaggerated reflection or a satire of New York hipsters, but they all universally seem like pains in the arse. They all drippy, pretentious and self-absorbed, living purely for gratification on social media. I was born at the upper end of the millennial timescale, so maybe someone five or so years younger than me can explain why these people are actually really nice, normal people, but to me they seem like narcissism writ large.

It is a shame this massive hurdle is in the way, as this show could have been so much than what it is. Better still, drop the comedy and play it straight but witty. Instead, I find myself watching just to solve the mystery, which, frankly, isn’t good enough. Maybe that is why it is online only. It just can’t compete with other programmes that are so much better.

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Series four of Sherlock was hotly anticipated. How could it not be? The first three seasons had been near perfect, and even a slightly wonky Christmas special had more pluses than minuses, with any confusion overturned by sheer energy. This was a show that was clever, almost taxing even, but still fun and fizzy. It was like a tangy sweet that supercharged your brain.

And then came series four. Oh lord, where to begin. There have been more than a few murmurings that this season lost the plot, and I am inclined to agree to a certain extent. I will pick over the faults in a moment, but to do so I feel I need to extol what I loved about the show previously.

Sherlock is, at heart, a crime drama. It is, after all, about the world’s most famous fictional detective. Hence, what you need is a crime or puzzle to solve. The joy is watching the connections form in Holmes’ mind as it takes leaps of logic. The best episodes left you giddy and gasping for air, but wanting to do it all over again, like the most amazing rollercoaster.

This series, however, we have had two major issues. The first is that the puzzle solving has been replaced by action. Take The Six Thatchers. Who and why is answered half way through, leaving the viewer instead being carted off on an action romp. The episode was saved only by the need to resolve a second mystery of finding the betrayer. Even then, we felt as if the episode had been more of a character study of Mary Watson, in order for the ending to leave us more sucker punched.

This need for a character study blighted episode three as well, this time of Sherlock and, to a lesser degree, Mycroft and Eurus. Whilst there may have been puzzles, it was always more of an emotional drama. But I wonder how many viewers wanted this? I know of many who are walking away from the show now finding the whole thing a mess.

The second episode was, for me, the strongest, because it most went back to what the show does best. It was about how to bring down a villain. Toby Jones was brilliantly chilling and we actually got to see Sherlock’s mind working. It also, bar a mortuary scene, was gloriously un-action like. Everybody got the chance to take a breath. It helped that Una Stubbs got her biggest share of the limelight of the series as well. Seriously, how can one brilliant character be so under used?

The case for the defence is we now have a mature, emotionally astute Sherlock. His sociopathy has been blunted and his awareness of his impact on others blossoming. He is entering a new plan. There also rumours that, if we do get a series 5, we will see a return to the more equally balanced episodes of the opening series. I do hope so. People love a mystery. We are more tepid on watching introspection.

In the absence of season 7 of The Good Wife appearing on Netflix and Once Upon A Time only just starting to upload its new episodes, now seemed as good a time as any to try out Stranger Things, Netflix’s much-talked about horror/mystery series. In many respects it shouldn’t be my thing. I don’t do horror, I don’t do hype and I don’t do government conspiracy shows. Nevertheless, I felt crossing it off the list was a must.

Overall, I’m enjoying it, but probably not for the reasons intended. The main reason I don’t do horror is that I find it either predictable or over-the-top, or both. I find that Stranger Things is a little bit of both. I’m not scared, but there is enough of a layer of creepiness for me to not ditch the show. Even so, for a horror, the thrills are not the main drive to keep watching.

The mystery strand is another one that works no doubt for many, but isn’t my main focus either. Missing people, weird government science base, yada yada yada. Again, it works enough for you to keep tuning in, but, for me at least, isn’t what I walk away thinking about when I have finished watching.

Instead, it is the more human dramas that enthral me. Nancy and her crush on the boorish Steve giving way to something deeper with the outcast Jonathan. The lingering of his daughter’s death on Hopper. Joyce and her desperate methods to find her son. Winona Ryder plays this mix of woman on the edge/steely blue-collar mamma grizzly excellently, her madness guided by enough logic to make her believable and sympathetic.

More than this, it is the child actors who steal the show. There is almost a Stand By Me quality to the programme when they take centre stage, and they really should do so more often. There is a humour which makes the emotional weight worthwhile and bearable, but don’t mistake them for fluff. Through them all the genres flow, be it coming-of-age drama, supernatural, sci-fi, mystery – all the while driving their own plot strand forward.

Netflix has done what Netflix does best – taken a punt on something that wouldn’t work on mainstream TV. A little bit Twin Peaks, a little The X Files, a lot of cult 80’s horror; they have given us something different. Is it my favourite thing this year? No. But it’s good. Sometimes when you throw everything but the kitchen sink at a show, more sticks than doesn’t.

In the latest instalment of ‘Matthew gets round to watching something after months of hearing how good it is’, I finally settled down to watch How to Get Away with Murder. It is a perfect fit for me in many regards. For a start, it is a legal drama, one of my favourite genres. Also, there is a mystery subplot, one which moves us between two timeframes. Oh, and the lead character is a strong, well-rounded woman. Tick, tick and tick.

Yet, three episodes into season 1, I finding this squarely sitting in the ‘I like it’ category and not the ‘I love it, let’s watch the next episode now’. Surprised at my disappointment, I decided to trace the reasons for it.

I will start with the reasons I like it. The cases are suitably odd – millionaire framed for his wife’s killing, soccer mom has past life as terrorist etc. I always like to see how the legal mind works its way through puzzles such as these. Whether it is missing pieces of evidence or loopholes in the law, the mental gymnastics that are performed are brilliant to watch.

The mystery plot is also solid, although anybody who has watched similar shows before will probably see most of the twists well signposted. Desperate Housewives, in its early seasons at least, did it better. Even so, it is an enjoyable enough ride.

So if the plot is working well enough, what’s the problem? For me, it’s the characters. Whilst it always takes time to add layers to people, I find the chosen five students to all be irritating and/or bland. Wes, in particular, bores me, which makes it all the more frustrating that he is being marked as the emotional heart of the show. Out of the five, only Connor saves them, and that is because I have a soft spot for LGBT characters.

Annalise herself is also frustrating. I feel as if we have seen the ball-breaker legal woman before (see my thoughts on Suits last week). In the early episodes, when she is emotional about her husband’s potential role in the murder, I’m not sure if she is genuine or merely stringing people along. The rule of thumb for me is that you are allowed to take other characters for fools, but only do it to viewers if you have something brilliant lined up to make it worthwhile, and so far it doesn’t. Or maybe I am missing something obvious.

One final thought does strike me, which is that maybe part of the problem is that I am watching this through Netflix on my laptop, where the temptation is to open a second window and do some shopping or social networking at the same time. Not having my undivided attention is perhaps costing the show, although I did the same with The Good Wife and had no such problem with investing in it.

I will stick with the show, as I feel that perhaps my character judgements are too harsh for now. But it hasn’t claimed a special place in my TV temple. Quite frankly, it would have to do something quite spectacular to do so.

It is a much repeated saying that if Dickens was around today he would be writing for Eastenders. Personally, despite him being a Londoner, I have always thought his melodramatic tragi-comedy would have made him more of a Coronation Street fan, but the point still stands. He was a very talented writer, albeit one who strayed into soapy territory at times.

So what if Dickens novels were made into soap operas? How would characters from different novels interact with each other? Well wonder no more, dear people, because Dickensian is that very thing. The brainchild of Eastenders writer Tony Jordan, it is a melting pot of Dickens novels, including (but not limited) to Bleak House, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations.

On the surface it is a bit of an odd fish. At times it seems to be an origins tale, explaining how Miss Havisham became the eternal bride, and how Lady Dedlock became married to a man she never loved. This is all well and good, but anyone familiar with the novels would know what the ending of the journeys is, meaning that as much as you want to change the course of the characters journey, you can’t. Amelia will get duped, Honoria will never marry her sweetheart. Whilst it is fascinating to watch their lives steadily reach the point where we meet them at the start of the books, it is also painful.

Far more interesting is the plot that steps out of the books much more, namely the murder of Jacob Marley. The characterisation of Inspector Bucket is beautifully done, Stephen Rea playing him as a quiet, monotonous man who still exudes enough of a threatening air to make him feared by criminals as opposed to the joke he could so easily become. Admittedly the fact that everyone is a suspect (a different episode puts a different character under the microscope) makes this slightly labourious, but it is bubbling away nicely. Maybe it will be solved if he gets his wife to help him, like in Bleak House.

There are other plots too of varying importance and interest: Sikes’ wooing of Nancy (we all know how that ends up), the Bumbles’ social climbing, Mrs Gamp’s hunt for gin. Overall, it is an interesting cauldron of ideas, although how everything is going to fit in to 20 episodes without something being lost is a big question.

Having said that, it would be interesting to see a second series following other plots. I’ve always wondered what became of Mortimor Lightwood and Eugene Wrayburn after the latter married. I always pictured Lightwood as being in love with Wrayburn and speculate on how he would fare relegated to the status of third wheel. And then there is those mentioned but so far not seen in the first series, in particular Uriah Heap and Mr Tulkinghorn, both of whom cast such powerful shadows in their books.

Anyway, I digress. At the end of the day, this is a fascinating and well-executed programme. It is both safe (who doesn’t love a bonnet drama?) yet daring in such a way that only the BBC can pull off. It somehow saves itself from being silly by tight writing, strong characters and irresistible plots. Not unlike Dickens’ novels themselves, then.

There are some genres I naturally avoid. For example, I am averse to dark and moody crime dramas, where extreme violence is thing de jour. No doubt Luther and Happy Valley are excellent shows, but I would rather take the chocolate box murders of Midsomer any day. Likewise, I avoid those ‘medical’ documentaries of people with extreme conditions, largely because many blur the line between fascinating glimpse of an individual and freak-show.

I also tend to not watch horror, as I am not one of those people who buzzes off being scared. Yet I find myself enthralled by Scream Queens, a delicious confection that blends dark humour, mystery and bloodthirstiness. Part of the allure is that it is from the team behind Glee, a show I loved, albeit purely for the sharp, acerbic scripts as opposed to singing or celebration of diversity.

It is the transferral of that sharp writing to this new programme that is the big initial hook. The first episode spent a lot of time establishing the mysteries and getting the main cast into one place, so the script didn’t get to zing as much as it could, but the second one (the most recent shown in the UK) really flew. A favourite scene of mine was the pledge scene where the head of the sorority was trying to get the girls to drink ‘lemon soup’, really her finger bowl. Neckbrace, played by Lea Michelle, was a delight in this scene, and who knew Michelle could play comedy so well? Especially after her role in Glee had her as the emotional heft to the show, leaving the comedy to others.

I am also revelling in Jaime Lee Curtis’s role as Dean Munsch. The character is basically Sue Sylvester with fewer sociopathic tendencies and a higher sex drive, but with an equally devastating quip at hand. If the scenes at the sorority demonstrate the strength of the ensemble, Curtis brings the individual memorable character. Please, no spoilers if she dies, I want to face my potential grief with surprise.

Of course, none of this matters if there isn’t the required mystery or horror elements. The latter was slightly overdone to my taste in the first episode, although the climactic scene was a dark comedic delight. As for the former, things are bubbling away nicely. I had a strong hunch the Red Devil was the dad after the first episode, but the second episode knocked that after the too obvious reference to his love of 1995 power ballads (the year that we keep flashing back to).

So I came for the comedy, am staying for the mystery, and even slowly beginning to love the horror. It is pure nonsense, but acceptable nonsense. Sometimes, I think, that is all you want from a show.

As an avid reader, I always get nervous when a book is being adapted as a film or TV programme. Often the joy of books is found in the little details which rarely get transferred to screen, as condensing a 400-page novel to two hours of viewing means only the broadest of sweeps are included. I have been left disappointed on several occasions as a result of this, in particular with Sky’s adaptations of the Discworld novels a few years ago.

Death Comes to Pemberley does not come with this baggage though, as I have not managed to read the book. On the plus side, this meant no expectations or disruption to how I imagined things. On the downside however, I also had nothing to measure it against, so I have no way of knowing if the tone and atmosphere of the show matches the writing of P. D. James. All I could go on was my experience of the characters in Pride and Prejudice, to which Pemberley is the sequel. Even then, the failure of these characters to transfer could have been as much the fault of James’ as it was of the screenwriter.

Thankfully, on that point Pemberley did not disappoint. Lizzie Darcy is as strong-headed as before, her mother as neurotic, Lydia as childish and Wickham as wicked. The only transformation of character is in Mr Darcy, who has become softer-edged (although still commanding), which is one that Austen had suggested at the close of the original novel anyway. Anna Maxwell Martin and Matthew Rhys play the couple brilliantly, with a love that is open, tactile and (shockingly for the puritans) erotic. Mr Darcy’s reversal to his pre-marriage self as the stress of the events mounts is moving, as you watch him distance himself from his wife emotionally, and most heartlessly, physically, refusing the touch of her hands.

Another joy were the flashbacks, not only to scenes in the novel but those that occurred before and in between the two stories. A particularly telling one was one from the Darcy’s wedding celebrations, where Lizzie overhears local gossips mocking her lack of fortune and chastising Darcy for allowing his heart to rule his head. It is clear that the marriage is not fairy tale, and the snobbery that echoes in Austen’s book did not end when the story did.

The plot, I have to say, was a little like wading through treacle at times. There seemed to be a lot of sub-characters who didn’t have a purpose until the final episode of the three. Of course, such is the way with some mysteries is that you have to persevere and hope for the payoff. Although the revelation of the murderer was an anti-climax it satisfied, and everything was tied up neatly. This was never going to be as bizarre or bloody as something like Luther. Although there was the horror of the gallows and a bit of blood, it was essentially no more distressing than a sedate Miss Marple. Even if the plot never seemed to reach a top gear, the characterisation kept you watching. It was a nice little Christmas treat, and that was all it ever intended to be.