The Watchlist: October 2016

There’s a lot this month, brace yourself…

Television

Class

I worked out that I haven’t properly watched Doctor Who since 2010. This was around the time that a) I was growing up and getting into ‘adult’ TV more b) David Tennant regenerated into Matt Smith*, and most importantly c) Stephen Moffat took over as ‘writer’ (I use the term loosely given the dirge that comes from his keyboard**). I was keen to jump on board with this even if I was just out of its teen target audience. I haven’t watched a sci-fi show for a while, and there were lots of people comparing it to Buffy on social media, so I leapt in feet first.

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The first episode felt very contrived. They obviously had the difficult task of introducing every character to us but it didn’t feel particularly subtly done. Also, there was the feeling that they were trying a bit too hard. I know young adult fiction is great for representation and being relatable, but having a gay character who is happy in his sexuality, a gay character whose parents don’t agree with his sexuality, a football loving character whose girlfriend dies and then subsequently suffers from unresolved grief, his classic father figure, the brainbox who has been moved up a few years for being so clever and whose father has died and mother is very strict, and last but not least, the violin playing slim teen girl who doesn’t have any friends and has to care for her disabled mother who became paralysed after her manic father forced their car to crash is a lot to take in. And of course, to top it all off, they’re all very attractive. I understand why they’re all attractive (acne and spots do make it difficult to film scenes out of sequence) but it’d be great to have a character who isn’t a slim, attractive teenager. There’s always some dreamboats in every year but everybody has flaws beyond their ‘secret’ home life when they’re at school, and yet Class fails to show these. Where are the people doing crap at school work? Where’s the person who got dressed in two seconds this morning because they woke up late? Where’s the person worried about their weight? Hell, why can’t we have a non-slim character where their weight isn’t presented as a character point? Everything’s all too well quiffed.

That all aside, this series has promise if you try to watch it and enjoy it for what it is. There is a fair bit of gratuitous blood (“look at us, we’re a grown up grisly Doctor Who!”) and an odd nonchalance from every authority that shit loads of people die and disappear from one school and no-one cares, but there we go. I am a little disappointed that there hasn’t been an internet meme created a la Barb from Stranger Things after Coal Hill’s Headmaster is eaten by a monster and thus disappears. #Justice4TheN1ceHead

On top of grown up blood scenes, there’s a fair bit of sex too – episode three sees the gay characters so busy fucking each other senseless they fail to realise the world is ending around them. Admittedly, I would probably also spend the end of the world in bed but more out of laziness than through great company.

*Christopher Ecclestone is still “my” Doctor though
**pot, kettle

Black Mirror

hafgaftstsuhsdfygdsh! That’s the noise I made when new episodes of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror arrived on Netflix. I understand that Netflix’s thang is to release episodes in bulk, however, I do think it would have benefitted them to strip this back and release one a week. There’s arguments for and against this when it comes to anthology series, but I think it would have allowed time for people to watch an episode and discuss it and get that ‘watercooler chat’ in. Black Mirror isn’t a show to binge-watch; you need to time to appreciate its nuances after each episode.

As a result, I took my time with this series. I watched episode 1, Nosedive, and episode 3, Shut Up And Dance (ta, Walk the Moon) on the same weekend; episode 4, San Junipero a week later and then rounded off the month with episode 2, Playtest.

Nosedive is a nice gentle start to the series and falls into the ‘plotted’ category of Black Mirror. There’s two episode styles seen over all three series – the ‘onion’ and the ‘plot’. The ‘onion’ presents the viewer with a certain reality at the beginning of the episode but then we’re slowly drip-fed facts and things twist, as we learn what we’ve seen should actually be viewed from a different perspective and the layers within the episode’s world become apparent. San Jun fits into this category and in previous series, White Bear. Playtest does to an extent too. On the other hand Nosedive is a linear episode. We’re not necessarily given all the facts to begin with (there’d be no point watching if that was the case) but there’s a solid narrative along a timeline. Shut Up And Dance follows this too.

There’s a real beauty in the way Black Mirror presents the near future in a way that is so believable. The pastel colours in Nosedive really make it stand out. Another great point in Black Mirror is the cast. There’s always a great collection of notable actors and actresses, often British, who aren’t necessarily main characters or protagonists but pop up for a scene or two. Most Black Mirror’s tick the box for believability, but Nosedive’s main device particularly so. If there was indeed a rating system in place I can guarantee I’d be in the low 3s.

21-black-mirror-rankings-w529-h352Playtest was a little weak in my eyes. A little bit smug, with a clever ending but it felt a little unsatisfactory overall. The protagonist wasn’t particuarly likeable either and the episode took a long time to get started.

I felt an immense pressure to love San Jun after people were waxing lyrical about it on social media. That pressure probably ruined it for me a little, but it was a genuinely lovely episode presented in a beautifully arty way, travelling across the decades. It’s probably the episode I would choose to go back to and rewatch in the future.

Shut Up And Dance was the first episode written and set in the ‘now’ rather than the near future. Starring Alex Lawther as a teen caught wanking by his webcam it did seem very realistic after news stories about revenge porn and Russian webcam spies in recent years. This was one of the episodes where you could transplant yourself into the roles – how far would you go, under pressure, as you desperately try to avoid public shame? The public shame element crops up in the final episode of S3 too but more on that in the Nov blog.

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I feel like I haven’t watched a decent foreign drama in a while; they all seem to come out the woodwork in autumn and winter I find so I’m sure they’ll be plenty in the coming months. This one is available to stream in its entirety on Netflix and revolves around an original idea by famed Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø. Norway has elected a new government with a fairly sizeable majority on the policy of phasing out fossil fuels after a flood devastated swathes of the country a few years previously. However, the rest of the world are less keen on Norway’s new method of power production, which does away for the reliance on traditional oil and gas. So much so that Russia ‘temporarily’ occupies Norway… wait for it… on behalf of the EU! Things escalate, as you’d imagine and there’s desperate bids to end everything diplomatically but a far-right ‘Free Norway’ movement springs up to complicate matters. But can everything be blamed on them? The truth unravels over the series, which is plotted on a month by month basis. We follow the Prime Minister and immediate cabinet, the head of the Security Service, the PM’s bodyguard turned secret service agent, his judicial wife and a journalist adamant on exposing the truth behind everything and his wife who conveniently runs a restaurant that’s failing but becomes a Russian hangout.

It’s a very interesting premise, and something that feels oh so realistic throughout. There’s some interesting mock BBC bulletins that appear in the series which seemed interesting to me (even if the actor playing the newsreader seems to be parodying the BBC a little too far). I assume they were chosen as they’d be in English, adding an international flavour to proceedings. On that note, this series, although Norwegian, seems to spend as much time with scenes in English (to the point when you suddenly jolt upright at the sudden realisation there are no subtitles even though you’re half way through the scene) as Norwegian scenes and those spoken in Russian. Amusingly there’s references to Britain being part of the EU in this series too. I wish!

Taskmaster

I’ve been aware of Taskmaster for a while, catching the odd half of an episode in previous series but I’d never committed outright to one. I think I might have committed to S2 but I have a real dislike for Katharine Ryan which annoys me more than my actual annoyance at her. I feel like people will think I’m being misogynistic because she’s a female comedian and often the ‘token female’ on panel shows. It’s not that! Please, don’t think it’s that!

Anyway, Taskmaster is basically great and everybody should watch it. It’s a refreshing change to the tired old panel show format which clogs up the comedy slot on TV these days. In fact, Dave seem to be the only channel creating new and different comedy shows these days so kudos to them. I wonder if they’re all on there because no other channel will commission them…

Dave ‘check shirt’ Gorman, Al ‘moneybags’ Murray, Paul ‘innit’ Chowdhry, Rob ‘I’ll come on to him later’ Beckett and the ever excellent Sara ‘don’t want to put a comment in inverted commas because I really like her’ Pascoe. On the subject of Rob Beckett, he appears to me like that annoying child in your year at school who thought they were hilarious. Like, the bee’s knees of comedy. They probably had mildly kooky parents who encouraged them much to the exasperation of everyone else. And occasionally, say once a month, he’d say something genuinely funny during an RE lesson and everyone (even the teacher!) would laugh but that would only end up encouraging him and he’d try to emulate the success of that joke, fail and then just repeat that joke for the next week out of context, desperate to get some laughs. That’s how I view Rob Beckett.

Morgana Robinson’s the Agency

11784361-high-morgana-robinsons-the-agency-nat-cass-bagsI’ve been mildly aware of Robinson for a few years having never actually watched any of her programmes. She’s cropped up on Charlie Brooker programmes playing Russell Brand back when he was a thing, and I was aware of ‘Natalie Cassidy is just doing this now’ references on social media from her C4 show a few years ago. Also, she cropped up on celebrity Bake Off earlier in the year and this video where she pretends to be Fearne Cotton is v good.

This is a neat idea for a impressionist series and it’s delivered well. Nice mix of celebs, presented in a mockumentary style as we see inside their lives. Obviously, some of her impressions are weaker than others. Danny Dyer and Greg Wallace do nothing for me, her Miranda just about passes but Robinson’s Adele, Natalie Cassidy, Joanna Lumley and her Fearne Cotton are superb. In fact, she manages to be more Fearne Cotton than Fearne Cotton herself has ever managed. And obviously, the Cassidy performances are superb and I was thrilled to discover there would be an entire episode dedicated to her!  (Ep 5, if anyone’s interested)

Also, as an aside, Morgana as Natalie Cassidy had a chat with actual Natalie Cassidy on the Radio 1 Breakfast Show during the promo train and *thrillingly* when they asked real Cassidy what she was doing today she replied with, “I’m taking my dad to the supermarket!”; which is such a mock Cassidy thing! Oh, how I chuckled.

National Treasure

Headline: I didn’t like this. People were going mad for it on social media and I felt like they were watching a different programme to me. Yes, it’s an incredibly relevant drama but everything felt over-stylised in its way. Scenes shot with poor lighting for no reason other than to make everything seem more menacing or threatening than the reality. Admittedly, my predications for its ending proved incorrect so there was at least that. Although not terrible, if someone said to me “should I watch this?” I’d say no, go and watch something more worthwhile.

First Dates

This show has definitely hit a groove now and is clearly a money spinner too. International versions are springing up all over the place, Fred (the maitre’d) has somehow released a book on love just because he’s French and there’s been a spin off show created. Saying all this, I’m not so keen on the new waiter they’ve hired in. He’s lacking in any perceptible charm and charisma. Whichever episode aired in the first week of October was a stand-out, classic First Dates. Great from start to finish. Hunt it out.

Films

Remarkably only one proper film this month…

hero_manfromreno-2015-1Man From Reno

This has been on my Netflix watchlist for a while and a dark Saturday evening seemed the perfect time to click play. It sees a famous Japanese crime fiction author (Jessica Fletcher in a kimono if you will) return to San Fransisco and get caught up in a criminal plot. The film is half in English it and half in Japanese with subtitles, something I wasn’t necessarily expecting but was a pleasant surprise. I wonder how many people were turned off by the subtitles though, expecting a minor all-English blockbusting thriller.

There is a thriller element to this but I feel like the actual plot itself is too weak to warrant the suspense that they tried to build up. I won’t ruin it by explaining any further but when the reveals begin to happen in the back end of the film you do think “is that it? It’s been working up to that? Were all the deaths worth it?”. Saying all this, it’s not a bad film and I’d recommend it wholeheartedly. The anecdote about the dropped melon is something to look out for if you don’t know it already

Stutterer

Look at me watching a short film! To make matters even more cardigan-wearing and sipping camomile tea-esque, I only watched this because the New Yorker posted it on their website. I was mildly aware of it for winning an Oscar a while ago and if you’ve got a spare few minutes hunt it out. It’s a short film, so I won’t talk in depth about it – just go and enjoy it. And not purely because there’s an attractive male protagonist which might have swayed me a little.

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Matt Shepard Was A Friend Of Mine

I’m ashamed to say, as a gay man, that I was unaware of who Matt Shepard was until the Orlando shooting earlier in the year. Someone on social media tweeted about how it was incorrect to assume all homophobia in America was shocked out of society when Matt Shepard died, or words to that effect. A cursory Google brought up the Wikipedia page and I gave it a quick skim. I didn’t know all that much about the case or its details, Matt’s life or experiences, so this documentary seemed a good place to start (albeit many months later). It does a good job of presenting him as human, with loves and disappointments without being overly sentimental. We know where its all heading so it was wise not to force this point down the viewers throat every few minutes. I did some more research after watching it which brought up this very interesting Guardian article about a book a journalist released a few years ago, shedding new light on the murder and motives.

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