Life may be tough. Life may be hard. But… there’s still TV to watch.
So, after the strike-shortened season, we’re back with the superhero saga and what’s changed? Well, going by the haphazardly random storytelling, the creaky dialogue and the astounding leaps in logic, not much. Tim Kring’s name was on the script of both episodes so it’s no surprise that we got a selection of bad dialogue, but it’s amazing how quickly Heroes seems to have run out of steam. Already we’ve got another world-saving maguffin, another random glimpse of an apocalyptic future, more vague burblings about approaching evil, and it’s hard to remember that this was the show which two seasons ago was pulling off some devilishly daring and enjoyable plot twists. I think it’s possible that one of the biggest problems is that they’re running out of things to do with the characters – or, to be more precise, they’re running out of convincing ways of de-powering their ridiculously powerful characters. When you’ve got people like Peter Petrelli and Sylar walking around with virtually unstoppable powers, the plot has to tie itself in knots to come up with ways that they can’t easily overcome any obstacle, and the absence of comic book riffs also isn’t doing the series any favours. S1 may have effectively played on the X-Men storyline ‘Days of Future Past’ as well as Watchmen, but now we’re so acclimatised to the random ‘throw the balls in the air’ storytelling of Heroes that it’s impossible to be surprised by anything. Yet another Future Peter turns up, Matt gets randomly transported to Africa, Present Peter gets metamorphosed into Weevil from Veronica Mars, Mohinder showcases a thundering lack of scientific care and is soon re-enacting entire sequences of Cronenberg’s The Fly, and Sylar once again proves that he’s really, really not a very interesting character. Combined with some clunky humour (did we really need the George Takei message from the grave?), the first two episodes also sported some clumsy editing (especially where several hours seemed to elapse between Claire hiding in the closet and Sylar actually finding her) and carried a general sense of “Oh no, not again”, especially when the usually reliable Adrian Pasdar started to spout embarrassing lines about finding God, while the less said about the truly appalling Mohinder’s Meaningful Monologue at the end of episode 1, the better. Admittedly, episode two showcases a marginal improvement, and it’s slightly more interesting than the dull opening of Season 2, but unless they’ve got episodes to measure up to S1’s ‘Company Man’ coming up, I think we can file Heroes permanently in the ‘Major Disappointment’ category.
I stayed away from the recent BBC iteration of Robin Hood. Having grown up on the fabulous mythic Eighties Clannad-enhanced strangeness of Robin of Sherwood, I really wasn’t sure about an updated version, and after catching thirty seconds of a BBC repeat and finding myself shrieking “Oh my god, that looks TERRIBLE”, I figured I wasn’t missing much. After that, it limped to another series but didn’t last longer, and now seems to be generally used as a touchstone for appalling family TV. Anyway, the early adverts for Merlin looked equally bad – a bright theme park version of Camelot, with Anthony Head looking very silly in a crown, lots of CGI, and nothing that filled me with any confidence (and the fact that it was from the makers of Hex didn’t help matters). Being in a situation where I needed all the distractions I could get, however, I caught up with the first episode on the online BBC iPlayer and… surprisingly… it was rather good fun. Not only that, but it’s continued to be good fun for the following two episodes. It’s rarely been in danger of being genuinely brilliant, and it’s safely described as fantasy cliches by numbers, but it’s also energetically put together, unafraid to be creepy, and played with just enough reality to make you feel like everybody involved actually means it. Essentially, it’s an Arthurian version of Smallville, but what could have been cringeworthy in the extreme is instead rather entertaining thanks to some halfway decent scripting, a story set-up that places Merlin under constraints thanks to magic being illegal, and some fine performances. Colin Morgan (who briefly popped up in New Who S4 episode Midnight) carries the whole thing well, managing to be likeable and believable, while the buddy-movie style friendship between him and Bradley Adams as Arthur may be cliched but also manages to be fun. They’ve run into some criticism for the revising of Guinevere as a black maidservant with a crush on Merlin – it’s not the wisest choice (even if it wasn’t on purpose), and I can’t help feeling it might have been more interesting to switch Morgana and Guinevere around, but it’s playing fairly well right now, and various interviews hint that they are going to eventually be turning Morgana towards the darker side (and that they’re hoping for five seasons, which seems eminently possible from a story point of view – as long as they don’t fall into the Smallville trap and keep doing teen Merlin for the next decade). There’s also a pleasing sense of spookiness and threat – Anthony Head’s hat may be silly, but we at least get the impression that there’s a decent reason why Uther is so anti-magic, and the stories have enough of an edge to them so that the whole thing doesn’t feel completely featherweight. It might be nice if they weren’t so desperate to show off the dragon CGI in every single episode, and there are moments where the cheese factor gets a little much, but as far as leave-your-brain-at-the-door Saturday entertainment goes, this is definitely a step in the right direction.
With virtually every US SF show you can think of being shot in Canada, the landscape around Vancouver is becoming somewhat over-familiar. When you’re once again seeing oddly dressed figures parading around a damp looking forest, and you’re no longer sure if you’re watching Tin Man, Stargate, Stargate: Atlantis, Flash Gordon or Battlestar Galactica, it may be time for a change. In fact, location is one of the most interesting things about alternate universe saga Charlie Jade, as it’s filmed in South Africa, giving it a visual look and an atmosphere that’s completely different from anything else on TV. Surprisingly, it’s not even South Africa doubling for somewhere else (a frequent occurrence, even – most weirdly – in the film Doomsday, where it somehow stands in for Scotland) – it’s set in and around Cape Town, and there’s a genuine effort made to give the series a South African flavour. It’s also a show with a surprisingly complex and convoluted set-up that’s heavily derivative, but with enough originality in its execution to make it stand out. Set in three separate universes (designated as Alphaverse, Betaverse and Gammaverse, and all with their own visual colour-code), it’s the story of Charlie Jade (Jeffrey Pierce), a Blade Runner-style private eye in a grimy, SF reality (Alphaverse) who finds himself propelled by a mysterious explosion into our own universe (Betaverse), where he’s sucked into a complex mystery revolving around the menacing corporation that’s created a link between all three universes and is out to financially exploit it. It’s closest in tone to the kind of kooky yet interesting Mad Max rip-offs that were appearing on video shelves during the mid eighties – the budget may not be massive, the acting may not always be astounding and the script isn’t as profound as it thinks it is, but the ambition and the scale of what they’re attempting here is seriously impressive. The incredibly stylised direction is often very good – occasionally it’s too much, especially when combined with experimental editing, but it gives the show a very unique tone, while the story is prepared to dole out the exposition gradually, placing mood and atmosphere above quick fixes of excitement. I’m thirteen episodes in so far, and while the quality goes up and down (especially in the largely standalone episodes 6-9), it’s a consistently intriguing show, with some well executed action sequences (especially one Bourne-like showdown in a bathroom) and a refreshingly bleak and adult tone. It’s not so good on its handling of female characters – most of the women in the show are either sex objects or damsels in distress, while a plotline involving a character trying to escape her life as a concubine in Alphaverse seems to have turned by episode 12-13 into an excuse to get the actress dressed up in bondage gear. The main antagonist character, 01 Boxer (Michael Flipowich) is painted as so psychotically perverse that he’s frequently difficult to believe – he does eventually get more depth, although some of the plot twists relating to his character don’t always make sense, and there’s certainly a heavy layer of style over substance here. Not always the easiest show to enjoy, but in a world where SF shows feed off each other to a ridiculous extent (just witness the dirge of unoriginality that is Fringe), a drama as deliberately layered, experimental and bonkers as Charlie Jade is certainly worth an exploration.
Well, what a disappointment. All the critical acclaim, and it’s really just another cop show, and not even a particularly interesting one with…. no, I can’t do it. While it might be more daring and interesting to try and counter the minor Tsunami of praise aimed at David Simon’s TV police epic, there’s really no point for the simple reason that this is one of the best, hardest and most adult TV drama series that’s ever been broadcast. It’s truly brilliant stuff that will eat your life, but despite this, it’s easy to see why The Wire struggled for ratings throughout its life, as this is the working definition of a DVD based show – miss one episode, or try and come in halfway through, and you’ll be lost. I actually downloaded the first season two years ago, and never made it through episode one, getting distracted halfway through. It sat on my hard drive for a while, and then, after more praise, I decided it was something I wanted to get on DVD rather than download (given that it has more of a sense of permanence that way, and everything I read suggested this was a series worth owning). It took me a while, but I’m glad I took the plunge – this is the kind of TV drama it’s easy to get lost in. It also eases in gradually, presenting the single story of the Barksdale drug investigation in amazing levels of detail, and letting the small character touches build up over all thirteen episodes. The point where the show won me over is in episode 4, ‘Old Cases’, where McNulty and Bunk examine an old crime scene, and the sequence manages to visually show the process they go through to reconstruct the events, while only using a David Mamet-esque series of exclamations of the word “Fuck”. And then, there’s the misadventures of Bubs, the junkie snitch who wants to clean up but doesn’t quite have the strength to carry it through; there’s Omar, the gay shotgun-wielding stick-up artist who makes it his business to steal from drugdealers; there’s Detective Freamon, the officer who’s been banished to the pawnshop department and barely says a word for the first four episodes and then turns out to be pivotal for driving the wire itself; there’s Kima, Prez, D’Angelo Barksdale, the iceberg of awesome coolness that is Idris Elba as Russell ‘Stringer’ Bell… hell, I could keep going and I wouldn’t even come close to completely encapsulating all the levels, degrees and nuances of this show. This is an unforgiving, frequently bleak but brilliantly written series that takes the stuff that cop shows normally cut out and makes it the meat of the story. Understanding how each step of the investigation goes, seeing all the legwork involved in keeping the wiretap going, and also seeing the organisation on the drug dealer’s side, it all adds up to a sobering, absorbing and pitilessly brilliant drama. It ain’t easy viewing – I had to space it over a couple of weeks, and I’m glad I did, as a marathon of episodes would leave me rather worn out (and somewhat depressed), but I’m certainly looking forward to watching it again (if only for having a better handle on the multitude of characters in the Barksdale gang, who are easy to get mixed up first time round), and I’m also going to have to get my hands on Seasons 2,3,4 and 5 sooner rather than later…