Just one this month…
There was a period of my life when I was around 17 when I seemed to watch an endless succession of coming-of-age films as some kind of distraction from the fact I *should* have been coming of age and wasn’t. There were no wild parties, no flawed romances, no new friends or exciting strangers crossing my path. I was just bumbling through with no epiphanies and hiding my sexuality like any good teen homosexual. I’ve still got a soft spot for the genre and fast forward to 2016 and here’s a gay coming of age film from Peccadillo films. Starring Juliet Stevenson as a mother coming to terms with her crumbling marriage, she’s gone to France to clear their French holiday home and has taken her only son with her. Elliott is played by Alex Lawther who’s a chap you can imagine being in every BBC period drama for the next ten years. And *would you believe it* the son is gay and a handsome stranger happens to cross his path! I jest, I jest. But srsly, Elliott’s this lonely, arty individual who’s working on his poetry and falling in love for the first time (and with carrots). This is actually a really nicely done film. Sure, it doesn’t really go anyway in particular and isn’t going to change the world but it’s a lovingly crafted drama with strong leads.
Orange Is The New Black: S4
One of the most talked about programmes of the past few years returns and people were a little anxious about Season 4. S3 was mocked for being too dull but I have to say I enjoyed it and found it refreshing – the thing that keeps OITNB together is the strength of its characters and S3 focussed on them and showed the background of many of those in the fringes. Clearly, however, producers are worried about how to keep the OITNB train rolling. Characters are great, but there’s only so much you can do within a closed prison environment – their answer? Bring in a shedload of new characters. If the prisoners can’t go out and meet new people let’s bring the people to them. In this season, inmate numbers are up with a fresh intake (it’s a privately run prison now and they’ve doubled capacity), there’s a load of new guards and a new Head Honcho called Piscatella (seemingly the very definition of a gay bear on Grindr). Caputo is up against it as usual, trying his best with little budget and now under the constraints of a corporation. Once again, the show moves further away from Piper – her storyline has been told, as has Alex’s and Red’s and Burset’s… and the series suffers from having no real focus. Sure the character ensemble is strong but you need something to ‘rally’ the troops as it were and there’s nothing here. As much as enjoyed the pace of S3, S4 didn’t learn from its mistakes.
The start of the series is unbelievably fluffy and, dare I say it, a little dull. There’s lots of plates spinning continuously that aren’t all that interesting. The only thing keeping it going is the ability to bingewatch the show. I firmly believe that if this was a linear TV programme aired weekly audience would drop off a cliff week by week, with some of the end of episode cliffhangers incredibly woeful. It picks up towards the second half and the message of inherent racism in society becomes reinforced well (and tragically) in the final episodes. It’s clear to see, however, that OITNB is little tired – the ending of S4 hints at changes to come though…
The Americans: S1
This show’s very hidden away in the UK. Originally picked up by ITV it was given a Saturday night ‘late’ slot that ended up being pushed back later and later and now it resides on Sky exclusive channel ITV Encore. I was keen to get back into it – I’d heard good things about it, and indeed, raved about it myself when the first season was over our way. Somehow in the intervening years I’d convinced myself that I’d watched the first half of S1 and then dropped out for whatever reason and was going to start with S2 watching instead. I plumped for a full rewatch which was probably wise – it turns out I’d merely seen the pilot and then never watched it again although I loved it. The complete ineptitude of ITV Player back in 2013 must have scared me off committing.
This is a strong drama. The Cold War era is endlessly fascinating but its easy to make TV dramas set around that time full of clichés and unsurprising (saying this, The Game on BBC Two last year was great). The Americans spins the perspective around and goes with the ‘anti-hero’ device, something I’d say is surprisingly under utilised in dramas, as we follow Soviet spies living a life of an American couple. It’s strong, it’s tightly plotted and ensures you commit to the characters – it’s very comparable to Mad Men. (Hopefully it won’t fall into the trap of taking viewers for granted – I fell strongly out of love with Don Draper mid way through the show even when it was trying to convince me to continue worshipping him) Obviously, with any drama, there’s some weak episodes here but overall for a first season it’s a strong start. Some of the flashback scenes do feel a little convoluted and cheesy so I’ll be interested to see if they make a return in S2.
Oh, reality TV. While everyone seemed to be going nuts for Love Island I settled for the other thing everyone was going on about – a TV drama set behind the scenes of a Bachelor-esque reality TV show and written and produced by someone with real life experience of the genre. The two main characters here are Rachel, the great but flawed producer on the show who hates it but is great at her job, and chief producer Julia, played by Constance Zimmer. This became oddly unsettling to me because Julia doesn’t seem all that different from the press officer Zimmer plays in The Newsroom.
Episode 1 is a very strong opener and the series overall isn’t terrible but the show clearly thinks it’s far more clever and different than it is in reality – “look, our protagonist works on a TV show that belittles women and makes them look like man hungry objects but wears a ‘This Is What A Feminist Looks Like’ t-shirt for two episodes!” – and yet falls into the same dull traps as any dirty big American TV show. Airing on Lifestyle over there, a network not exactly known for strong dramas (indeed this was their first series, they took a stab in the dark greenlighting this), they viewed S1 almost as a pilot within itself. This interview with the show’s producer in the New Yorker is worth a read. It gets very spoiler heavy half way through so tread carefully.
This month’s foreign drama of choice is this French family thriller with the classic device of ‘young girl disappears’. So far, so dull… and yet The Disappearance gets so many things right. The ensemble cast is incredibly strong and particularly Alix Poisson as the girl’s mother. For a show that follows so many TV mystery tropes (the parents aren’t perfect, the brother’s a little mysterious, there’s an Uncle, there’s a boyfriend, there’s infidelity, there’s a male and female cop duo) it feels remarkably original. It’s a real shame, however, that the female police officer was wasted as a character. Every seed that was sown about her personal life was forgotten about quickly and yet she gave the impression of being a far more intriguing and layered character than divorced-male-cop-with-mildly-rebellious-plot-device-daughter. There’s enough red herrings to keep you hooked and armchair detectives will feel satisfied. Fans of Broadchurch or The Missing will love this and it’s far superior to the former.
City In The Sky
If there’s one thing that TV doesn’t need another of, it’s a transport documentary. You can’t move for them in the schedules – when one on the London underground finishes, there’ll be on on Stansted Airport round the corner. That said I (and obviously many others!) can’t get enough of them. City In The Sky tries to do something different with the air travel documentary and focusses on the elements on flight – the preparation and take off, the journey itself and the landing. The series is so called because its estimated that at any given time there’s a whopping 1.2m people in the sky toing and froing between destinations and the ‘city’ is expected to double in size in the next two decades. There’s very little here that I haven’t seen explored before in other documentaries and yet it comes across as remarkably fresh, in part because the two presenters, Dallas Campbell and mathematician Dr Hannah Fry, are extremely likeable. They’re not telling you things but exploring it with you and holding your hand along the way. I do detest the ‘hip’ method of the presenters “texting” each other throughout each episode though – this isn’t an episode of Hollyoaks.
There was a lot of people on Twitter claiming this was the best sitcom since sliced bread. The most startlingly thing for me was its similarity to Simon Amstell’s impeccable Grandma’s House – even the house the episodes revolve in looks more or less identical! Just by some happy coincidence all the characters happen to have popped round on the same day and everything falls into place from there. This is a sitcom that thrives on the mundane – it’s slow, it’s ploddy, it’s awkward, it’s in real time and successfully manages to be a good mirror for real life. Poor old Mum puts up with crap because it’s easier than arguing (isn’t that always the way? Anything for a quiet life, eh) and the characters we meet in Episode 1 are the same as those in episode 6 but we’ve learnt far more about their character, their nuances and everyone isn’t what they seem on the surface. I hate to use the overused onion analogy but their is a bit of layer pulling going on here. Kelly is a masterpiece.
Helena Bonham Carter in something not directed or produced by Tim Burton – what a treat. I enjoyed this; a very light BBC One sitcom.
Panorama: The Orlando Massacre
Kudos to the production team for focussing on those inside rather than the gunman. This is the story of the clubgoers and their retelling of events inside Pulse that night. I’m not ashamed to say I cried watching this.