Archives for posts with tag: TV

There are some shows you know you will go back to. They hook you in on the first episode and that’s it. I normally leave reviewing these until two or three episodes in so I can get more of a handle on who I like and who I don’t and what is working and what isn’t.

Then they are others that after the first episode you feel a return visit is unlikely. It could be that the premise of the trailers wasn’t lived up, or that the only bits that were good were used up on said trailer. Sometimes, it comes down to the fact that nothing else was on so you gave it a try, only to realise all the reasons why you don’t watch this genre.

It is the last reason that fits most neatly with This Is Us. My mother insisted on giving it a whirl, and it did seem her kind of thing. Gentle humour, family love, bonds that never break etc. She’s a sucker for them. To be fair, when they are done exceptionally well, I can invest in them as well. Brothers & Sisters was a long-term favourite of mine, the sentiment balanced by a caustic zing.

Yet This Is Us worked for neither of us. My mother found the sudden revelation of the time difference at the end off-putting. She is never one to stretch herself with TV, and two time frames was asking too much. Personally, I find the concept one of the biggest pluses of the show, opening up questions about how the paths of the children diverged and why the parents aren’t shown in the present.

What didn’t work for me was that everything was laid on thick when it came to emotions. It all felt so heavy-handed. The finding of a birth father only to discover he is dying from cancer. The ‘breakdown’ of Kevin the actor. The biggest offender was the doctor’s speech, which didn’t stir even the slightest of twinges of pain in me.

One of the bright spots is the relationship between Kate and Toby. The much needed sharpness has the strongest chance of appearing from these two, with the chemistry flowing more authentically here then it does so elsewhere. There feels something real about them and I’m already investing in their relationship.

I started by saying it was unlikely I would return to this show. Unlikely, but not impossible. Nothing else seems to be on in the timeslot as of yet, so it may yet get a second chance to win both me and my mother over. But, if not, I doubt I will regret it.

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Finding a pause in my Netflix viewing schedule (seriously, Netflix, when are you putting season 7 of The Good Wife up?), I decided to tackle one of those shows everyone has been telling me to watch. Yes, after four years of ‘how are you not watching this?’, I have finally capitulated and started House of Cards.

In many ways, this should be a great fit for me. There isn’t a huge gap in terms of legal and political dramas, I love a bit of plotting and scandal and I’m not averse to a streak of dark humour. When you consider how loved it is by so many, it is hard to imagine how I could not fall in love with yet.

And yet, two episodes in, I find myself feeling underwhelmed. Part of the problem is that I actually don’t have a huge love for breaking the fourth wall. If the golden rule of writing is ‘show, don’t tell’, having the character speak directly to the audience breaks that. In some ways it helps fill in the background, but even so, it seems actually to be a distraction.

My other beef with it is that, when all said and done, I find it slightly dull. I confess to here being part of the problem. Often when I watch things on Netflix, I am doing something else at the same time. Therefore, subtleties are often lost, so any slight-of-hand by characters doesn’t register as well. The Good Wife and Orange Is the New Black don’t suffer from this as much, so I feel less lost.

Nevertheless, I intend to carry on for a while yet before I give this up as a lost cause. It seems very much the kind of show that needs to unfurl and slowly envelop you in its energy. Stakes will slowly be raised, relationships will complicate and there will be a reward for those who devote time to it.

On a side note, I do wonder if part of my discomfort is that I have started watching this during one of the most divisive American elections in decades. Even though I am separated from events by the Atlantic, the palpable anger is still being felt. I’m not going to say what side I’m taking so as not to make my blog a home for both sides to sling mud. Perhaps in a more stable time, House of Cards would just be an entertaining distraction. In the current climate though, it feels all too horribly real.

Different reality TV shows operate by different rules when setting criteria for contestants. The X Factor has never made any pretence of only selecting the best 12 singers, even if their justification for some of the acts making the live shows stretches credibility. The Great British Bake Off, on the other hand, relies on you believing that the final 12 are the best of the crop. Putting someone through just for entertainment value would ill serve their audience.

The Apprentice straddles between the two poles, veering slightly more towards the latter. A huge amount of the cache of the show is that these are all real business people and that Lord Sugar is only interested in the best. After all, his money and name are at stake every time.

If this is the case though, and these really are the best the audition process threw up, Sugar must be worried about now. Two episodes in and there seems to be very little genuine business acumen coming through. Of course, the first few weeks are always rough while nerves settle and the deadwood is removed. But this year it seems the contestants are particularly lacking in depth and skill.

The second episode was testament to this. Charged with creating an advertising campaign for Japanese denim, both teams committed a litany of errors around deadlines, logistics and failing to understand their market. Nobody had anything good to say, so it was unsurprising that both teams were judged failures by the boss.

Having said that, I have a certain degree of sympathy for them. Last year, this task revolved around cactus shampoo. The boys’ team latched onto the uniqueness of the product better than the girls and scored a convincing win. This time around, both teams made a stab at selling the Japanese angle to the jeans, albeit cackhandedly, only to be told by the grumpy teddy bear that the Oriental nature of the product was immaterial.

Anyway, with six candidates up for firing instead of just three, this seemed an ample opportunity for Sugar to remove a number of underperformers. There were solid cases for dismissal for five of them, ranging from being irritating, having a breakdown, and simply being non-existent. Yet just one departed, leaving some very underwhelming people in the process.

In fact, the biggest problem seems to be how few are actually speaking up right now. There are at least half a dozen candidates who seem to be content with being in the background. I genuinely couldn’t pick a winner right now. I don’t think I could even remember most of their names if pushed. Things best pick up soon, or Lord Sugar may find himself backing the least bad candidate to win, as opposed to the best.

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.

Most TV shows I find I have to watch every week, even if there is no requirement to do so. Chat shows, for example, require no knowledge of who was on previously to impact on the next one. Even so, I often tune in avidly.

The exception to this rule is when the chat show is more one-on-one. Unlike a more ‘panel’ based one, you are entirely dependent on being interested in that person who is under the microscope. A public figure could give all the revelations they want, but if you find the person repellent or just plain dull then the information means nothing.

Which is why I am so surprised at my own hit rate at watching John Bishop: In Conversation With. Three out of the four guests he has had on I have found interesting: James Corden, Charlotte Church and Alex Brooker. Admittedly, I find them so for different reasons. Corden and Brooker, to me, are naturally funny people. I find the dislike of Corden in some quarters to be almost irrational. Church, meanwhile, has led a truly fascinating life as someone who travelled through the always turbulent child star years to being an uncompromising musician and social campaigner.

One thing I did find in each episode is surprisingly varied tone in each one. This is to some degree understandable, as each guest is different. Yet there did seem to be a disparity in how Bishop treated Corden, a friend of his, to Church, an unknown figure to him.

Take for example the way Corden was questioned about his reaction to fame. He happily offered up the opportunity for Bishop to grill him about some less than dignified moments, but Bishop didn’t bite. No attempt to reference his spat with Patrick Stewart, for example. Instead, it felt like he had only interest in praising Corden.

By contrast, whilst he was gallant to Church when she was discussing the countdown to her 16th birthday coordinated by The Sun, he happily opened fire on some raunchy pop videos she had done. He was particularly disparaging of her defence of Miley Cyrus, suddenly playing a ‘Dad’ card. To Church’s credit, she made a strong case, pointing out that, as a parent, Bishop can censure his children from seeing it if he wishes, whilst also explain the context between different artists’ approach to raunchiness. Bishop didn’t really seem to listen though.

I don’t think Bishop’s problem was misogyny though. More that, in knowing Corden more personally, and likewise Brooker, he was happy to avoid challenging them. An interviewer who was equally distant or close to all three would have perhaps created a more consistent tone.

That’s not to say he isn’t good at his role. The conversations move along well and there’s a good mixture of personal introspection with well-told anecdotes, although his need to tell his own stories seems misplaced, another sin he seemed to commit more with Church than the others.

Overall, it is a good hour of TV. A bit of fine tuning with the tone, and this show could be really compelling. I will certainly be interested to see which side it chooses to take in the long run – the two mates chatting or the confessional.

Nostalgia is the theme de jour in TV at the moment. The BBC has had a season of remakes, lost episodes and prequels of its classic sitcoms, with varying degrees of success. Personally, I would have preferred to have seen them invest more in some of the pilots of new sitcoms they were showing on BBC2 – Motherland in particular has legs. Even the all-so-modern Netflix is in on the act, relaunching The Gilmore Girls. None of this is necessarily a problem, but surely the point of a platform like Netflix is to make daring programming that mainstream channels just can’t afford to take a risk on.

ITV’s nostalgia moment is in the return of Cold Feet. I have only hazy memories of the original series, but I was only 11-14 at the time and a lot of vodka has been drank since then. Still, I gave the new series a whirl. Or rather, my mother had it on so I sat down to watch as well.

Actually, it is rather good. The plot is, at times, a reheat of those from decades ago. Will this marriage crumble? Will those ex-partners get back together again? But what has been updated is the reasons. Jenny and Pete are on the brink not because of his fecklessness but his depression. This has been a very well-handled topic on the show. Pete has the dual pressure of a widening gulf between his and his friends’ lifestyles coupled with the ever-marching passage of time.

Meanwhile, Adam has married a woman several decades younger than him but his now caught in a conflict between supporting his emotionally lost son and glamourous wife. It’s clearly the two are ill-suited. It is also very obvious that Adam’s landlady is a much better match for him, down-to-earth and sparky. Of course, this won’t truly dawn on him for a few episodes yet and will no doubt present conflicts in the group of its own.

What hasn’t changed is the spark between the cast. Dramas like this sink or swim depending on whether the different strands come together to form a whole that is at least equal to, if not greater than, the sum of its parts.

Would have been great if ITV had found something similar but that was new? Absolutely, as TV can only survive off old hits remade for so long. But, for now, it is a pleasure to see that the show isn’t tarnishing its reputation. In fact, in allowing the clouds and sunlight to balance out perfectly, it might even enhance it.

And so, to my yearly blog on The X Factor. I feel as if I say the same things every year – the judging panel looking fresh, the format is really working this year, there is some great talent, yada yada yada. Yet, no return to the years where it could scoop up 12 million viewers without so much as breaking a sweat.

Of course, last year was a car crash. Olly Murs and Caroline Flack were single-handedly the worst presenting double act I have ever seen. Chemistry was at zero, and they could barely walk across a stage and speak at the same time. The judging panel also fell flat, the desperate grab for youth too cold. Having to work around the Rugby World Cup didn’t help either. There was a time when a major sporting event would play second fiddle to Cowell’s whims, but not no more it seems.

So obviously this year is going to feel like a return to glory compared to that. But I feel it genuinely is. I haven’t enjoyed watching the show so much in years. For a start, the show is yes less abrasive than it has been, with the bad and deluded kindly shepherded away rather than ridiculed. The judges have a spark between them and seem a perfect balance, with a ‘gang up on Simon’ mentality. The return of Dermot O’ Leary is also a big boost. He is Mr X Factor. Cowell can come and go, but Dermot stays.

The room auditions help. There is no baying mob to face and that gives contestants the freedom to be more experimental, picking lesser known songs or being more creative with big hits. There is some real talent shining through, both in returning contestants like Emily Middlemiss and Janet Grogan, and new finds like Matt Terry and boyband 5am. Of course, there is still the cruel but unmissable six seat challenge, which is always a brutal watch, it feels as if The X Factor is dropping its brutal image for more a family-friendly one.

Whilst it will never be all conquering again, it feels as if the show is finding a nice groove. No longer chasing ‘cool’, it is beating its own path and, as it happens, feeling a lot more fresh. It has remembered how to be fun and entertain. When it is on this kind of form, we could watch it for years to come and not be bored.