TV Reviews: March – May 2017

As promised last month, this month I’m going to do TV reviews instead of my usual book reviews. This isn’t going to be a regular thing, it’s just that I’ve been watching a lot of amazing shows lately and I wanted to rave about them. So here goes:

Legion:

This is a superhero show, more specifically, an X-Men show (Legion is the son of Professor X), but it’s not your typical superhero show. It’s not your typical show, period. According to the comics, Legion’s mutant power is that he can absorb other personalities into his mind, and this manifests into a severe case of schizophrenia. The show took this idea and really put us inside Legion/David Haller’s mind – sometimes literally – as he tries to come to terms with his power while figuring out what is real and what is not. Because it deals so much with the idea of mind, memories, and mentality, the show’s storytelling is quite unlike anything you’ve seen before. That, combined with slightly off, retro-looking production designs (the show looks like it takes place in some trippy 1960’s alternate universe), means that it can be difficult to get into. But the cast is tremendous – especially Dan Stevens, who has a near flawless American accent (how is it that British actors are always so much better at American accent than vice versa?) and Aubrey Plaza – and after the first couple of episodes, you’ll be hooked and won’t find it so weird anymore.

Big Little Lies:

This isn’t my type of show (it’s a murder mystery about a group of women in a wealthy neighborhood of Monterey), but it’s been getting rave reviews, so I decided to check it out, and suffice to say, I spent an entire Saturday binging it. It’s not so much a mini-series as it is a 7-hour long movie, and it does such a great job of building the tension that I spent the entire time watching with my fists clenched, waiting for it to explode. I’ve also read the book, and it’s good too (I actually prefer Reese Witherspoon’s character in the book) – book review coming next month.

American Gods:

Do I have to say anything more? Neil Gaiman, Bryan Fuller, a damn near perfect cast (this and “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” have restored my faith in casting for adaptations – the only quibble I had was Emily Browning, who I think is too young to play Laura, but after the episode two weeks ago, I was convinced), of course I would be all over this. My only complaint is that it’s not streaming, so you have to wait each week for a new episode. Therefore, I would recommend reading the book first – the plotting of the show can be really slow and a bit all over the place if you don’t know where it’s going.

The Handmaid’s Tale:

Again, this is not my kind of show – I’d never read the book, and in today’s political climate, a story about women losing all of their rights and being reduced to “two-legged wombs” sounds far too real and too depressing for me. But again, I’ve heard amazing reviews of it, and I’ve liked Elizabeth Moss since “Mad Men”, so I started watching. Well, it’s terrifying – the most believable dystopian story I’ve ever seen – but that’s also what makes it so riveting. I’m not sure if I’m invested enough to keep watching, mostly because it’s so mentally exhausting, but I’ll finish this season at least.

Anne with an E:

This may come as a shock to you guys, but I’m not a fan of Anne of Green Gables. I’ve read all of the books and watched the 1985 mini-series, and I love the world of L.M. Montgomery, but to be honest, I’ve always found Anne kind of annoying (when it comes to PE Island, I prefer the TV show “Avonlea”.) So I wasn’t particularly interested in a new adaptation of the book. But, after “The Handmaid’s Tale”, I need something light and wholesome to nurse my wrecked nerves back to health, so this fits the bill perfectly. It does a great job of making Anne more sympathetic (it shows very clearly that her imagining and daydreaming is a coping mechanism for all the horrors she’s had to endure) and of course, the scenery is gorgeous (or “divinely scrumptious” or “scrumptiously divine” or whatever Anne is wont to say.)

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“The Crown”, Season 1

It’s been a good month for TV. Right after finishing the latest season of “Black Mirror”, I started on another Netflix show which cannot be more different – “The Crown”, about Queen Elizabeth II and the start of her reign. You know I’m a huge Anglophile and a sucker for historical dramas, so naturally, I love this. But I’m not going to pretend it’s anything more than a 1950’s version of Downton Abbey – that is to say, a period family soap opera. To be fair, it is less sensationalized than Abbey – these are real historical figures after all – but it’s not exactly deep.

To make up for the lack of story, there’s the hugely talented cast – especially Claire Foy, who did a great job of turning a character that could’ve been so dull and characterless (there’s an entire storyline about how characterless QEII is compared to Princess Margaret) into someone engaging and sympathetic, and Matt Smith – he’s not my favorite Doctor (Christopher Eccleston forever) but I think he’s got the right mix of charms and sulkiness here. Most of the actors look a lot like the real persons too (try Googling the real Anthony Eden or Tommy Lascelles and compare them to their show counterparts), which I always appreciate in any historical drama. The one exception is Claire Foy, who looks nothing like the real QEII, but like I said, she’s so good that nobody will notice.

The main draw for me, however, is the costumes and sets. A lot of elegant 1950’s dresses, with cardigans and brooches (it’s basically how I would dress every day if I could), and really authentic, expensive-looking sets. Here, I’ll stop typing and just let you guys feast your eyes on all the gorgeousness:

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It took me forever to pick these screenshots, because there are so many to choose from. Basically, it’s a niche show, but an insanely well-made and well-acted one, so check it out!


“Black Mirror” Season 3

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If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you probably know that “Black Mirror” is one of my favorite shows, if not my most favorite. There’s just something about its dark cynicism that appeals to me. I have sung its praises twice before, so it’s no surprise that I was super excited for season 3 to return on Netflix (and can we appreciate the irony that a show specifically about the horrors of modern technology is now produced by a streaming platform, the epitome of modern technology?)

Since this is an anthology show and there are only 6 episodes, I’m going to give a quick review of each episode, instead of reviewing the season as a whole as I usually do.

“Nosedive”: This one hits close to home because it captures that whole world of blogging/social media where everything is about “likes”. Imagine that your Instagram statistics can determine your place in society. The more popular you are, the more privileges you get. And you get rated for every single encounter, every little thing you do, so you have to maintain that veneer of perfection at all time. It’s like an entire world of Stepford… people, except they’re not robots. This one is supposed to be funny (well, as funny as Black Mirror can be), but I find it terrifying.

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“Playtest”: Probably my least favorite episode. The idea is sound – an American backpacker gets stranded in London and decides to participate in the testing of a new “enhanced reality” video game, but soon loses touch with reality itself. But the build-up is slow, I don’t feel connected to the characters, and the message isn’t clear. The one positive note is that the Japanese actor playing the video game developer is hella cute.

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“Shut up and Dance”: A teenager gets his computer hacked, and the hacker threatens to spill his dirty secrets if he doesn’t do as he’s told. What follows is a tense 40-minute ride that will leave your fingernails a wreck and make you insanely paranoid (I scrubbed my Internet history after watching it – even though I didn’t have anything to hide). And par for the course with Black Mirror, it is super dark and shows that people are pretty much terrible.

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“San Junipero”: It starts out simply enough – in the 1980’s, two young women meet in a nightclub and start a relationship. But then you begin to realize this place, and these women, and the people around them, are not what they seem. More than that I won’t say. Black Mirror doesn’t get sentimental very often (see “people are terrible”, above), but this one’s going to make you cry.

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“Men Against Fire”: A dystopian world is threatened by mutated/infected humans known as “roaches”, and the main character is a soldier specifically trained to take them down, thanks to an implant in his brain. The implant then starts glitching, and of course all it goes to hell. This one has a twist that you can see a mile off, but that doesn’t make it any less harrowing.

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“Hated in the Nation”: Two detectives investigate a series of murders and discover that somebody is using robot bees, originally designed to replace the real bees which are dying out, to kill people. And not just random people, but people universally hated by the Internet. This is probably the most traditionally plotted episode – it’s a murder mystery. It’s what CSI: Cyber hopes it can be when it grows up. But the social commentary is still there, the bleakness is there, and, as horrifying as it is, I can’t help but think those robot bees sound like a really good idea – except they can be used to kill (which is exactly the point the episode, and the entire show, is trying to make. Technology is all well and good, until somebody abuses it.)

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Have you seen “Black Mirror”? What do you think?


“Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories”

Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, but I have yet to see an adaptation of his works that manages to capture their unsettling, slightly terrifying magical feel. Stardust is great fun, but it’s Hollywoodized, whereas Coraline was sanitized so much that it really isn’t the same story anymore. I’m sure that if The Graveyard Book ever gets made, the same thing will happen to it too.

Still, when I heard that four of his short stories were getting adapted into a Twilight Zone-esque mini series, my interest was piqued. These stories – “Foreign Parts”, “Feeders and Eaters”, “Closing Time”, and “Looking for the Girl” – may not be the most cinematic, but they could be amazing if adapted well, and the anthology format is perfect.

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I’m not going to summarize the stories, because you really have to read them to enjoy them (and the adaptations). Out of the four episodes, “Feeders and Eaters” is my favorite, since it has an interesting change from the source (the narrator of the frame story is now a pregnant waitress instead of a man, which emphasizes the “feeders and eaters” motif) and the casting of Miss Covier is perfect (again, you have to read the story, explaining who Miss Covier is would pretty much ruin it.)

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“Closing Time” is probably the creepiest, but in the original story, part of the creepiness comes from the fact that you’re never quite sure who is telling the story, but in the adaptation you can see the narrator right there on the screen, so it takes away some of that mystery.

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However, I was overall disappointed. The series is more like stage readings of the stories than adaptations. You get a lot of the “narrator” characters sitting around and telling you these stories (often with passages lifted straight from the source), and there are only the occasional scenes to illustrate the narration, instead of the stories being dramatized into actual plots. I guess this is a deliberate choice, since most of these stories have to do with storytelling, but it isn’t very interesting to watch. “Looking for the Girl” is perhaps the most frustrating of all, because the story is so good, and here it’s just an old guy sitting down and telling it to you.

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So this may be worth checking out if you’re a Neil Gaiman fan, but for me, it’s just another in a long line of disappointments. I’m holding out hope for American Gods (I trust Bryan Fuller, plus the casting looks great so far) and How to Talk to Girls at Parties (it’s directed by the same guy who made Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which is perfect for a story about punk rock and aliens.)


“Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell”

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It’s tough writing a review for an adaptation, especially one of a book as rich as Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell”. How much plot to include? Should I compare the book and the adaptation or just stick to one medium? Besides, the mini series isn’t even finished yet – only 3 episodes have been aired, and there are 7 altogether. But what I’ve seen so far is so good and I have been excited about this adaptation for so long that I couldn’t wait to rant about it. Please bear with me.

First, a brief summary: the story is set in England during the Napoleonic War, where magic has been lost for 300 years. It tells the rivalry between two magicians who are prophesied to bring magic back, the reclusive Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange, a talented novice.

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Of course, this doesn’t do the book justice, but then again, the book is so incredibly detailed and its world so large that no summary can do it justice. And that’s where the adaptation comes in. Even though I don’t remember the book exactly (I’m rereading it right now, as I watch the mini series), I think the adaptation perfectly captures the spirit of the story and follows the source material closely while still doing a good job of condensing it and adapting it into the visual form.

Comparison to Harry Potter is inevitable – it is, after all, a world of spells and charms, of talking statues and battleships made out of rain, of fairy folks and foundlings. But it’s not a kid’s show by any means. It touches upon more intimate, more grown-up themes than the simple good vs. evil, and explores them with subtlety (here’s an excellent article about how the show isn’t taken seriously because it doesn’t have the sex and violence expected in “adult fantasy”.) It’s very easy to turn this campy, or go to the opposite end of the spectrum and make it dark and heavy, but I think the show hits the perfect balance between the somberness of a historical drama and the excitement of a fantasy.

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And of course, it helps that the casting is pretty much perfect. Every single cast member is just like how I imagined that character – I literally squealed when I learned that Marc Warren was cast as the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair. My only scruple is Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange. I’ve only seen him in a small role in Sherlock and thought he was forgettable. In the book, Strange is described as “Some people thought him handsome, but this was by no means a universal opinion”, with a “long nose”, an “ironic expression”, and reddish hair, so naturally I thought my boy JJ Feild would be perfect. But, by the second episode, I was convinced.┬áBertie Carvel’s chemistry with Eddie Marsan (Norrell) and Charlotte Riley (Arabella Strange) was so amazing that I can’t imagine any other actor in that role.

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The cinematography, production design, and costumes are top-notch too. There are scenes that look just like Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings:

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If this is how the first 3 episodes are, then I have no doubt the last 4 would be just as great. Go watch it! (It’s on BBC One now every Sunday, and will be on BBC America starting from June 13.) And read the book!


“Black Mirror: White Christmas”

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Ah, Black Mirror. The sick, dark, twisted sci-fi anthology show that makes me so happy (and terrified) when I first discovered it. For a while it looked like the show wasn’t showing to get another season, so I was super excited to find out it was coming back with a Christmas special. It contains three interconnecting stories revolving around Matt (Jon Hamm), Greta (Oona Chaplin), and Joe (Rafe Spall), with Matt and Joe’s conversation during Christmas dinner at a strange, snowy outpost serving as the framing device.

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I will not reveal too much about the actual plot or the sci-fi concepts used in the episode. Suffice to say, it continues in the vein of previous episodes, which takes an existing technology or concept (Google Glass, blocking on social media, mind uploading) and push it further, so when you watch it, you can recognize it right away, but you also realize how terribly wrong it could go, and that’s what makes Black Mirror so brilliant.

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I have a few quibbles about the casting of Jon Hamm – I think he’s too recognizable (you look at him and all you can see is Don Draper), though I do admit, he is perfect in bringing that half-charming, half-smarmy quality that the character needs. The section with Oona Chaplin is a bit lacking, but it does tie in nicely with Rafe Spall’s story, which is heartbreaking and creepy and horrible (in a good way) all that the same time. The final twist I could see a mile off, but it doesn’t matter because the ending is so terrifying.

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The first two seasons are on Netflix and I’m sure this will be too. If you want to feel absolutely wretched before the holiday, check it out! Merry Christmas indeed.

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Bomb Girls: Facing The Enemy

So I finally caught the Bomb Girls TV movie that serves as a series finale. At first I was a little miffed that it just glosses over most of the events in the second season’s cliffhanger to get everybody back to the status quo (Betty is out of jail! Gladys is back at the factory!) but slowly I got drawn into the story and really enjoyed it. Yeah, some of it is kind of far-fetched, but it’s fun. I’m not even annoyed with Gladys’ storyline as usual – mostly because her obnoxious love interest is [SPOILER] disposed of right at the beginning. I said “Oh thank God!” aloud at that scene. I can’t stand another minute of his faux British accent. The rest of the story is great too, and I only wish it was developed into a full season, because it definitely feels kinda rushed at times. Oh well. It’s a good wrap-up. Now, maybe I can move on to The Bletchley Circle or Call the Midwife. May Bletchley Circle first, that has only 7 episodes.

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bombgirls00026Why, Gladys, how very Agent Carter of you