Time for some serious catch-up with the TV I’ve been recently watching. As ever, fear the spoilers…
Having watched the first episode of the second season of Pushing Daisies and not being hugely impressed by it, I’d put off watching the rest for a while – but I’m glad I finally made the effort, as while there are ups and downs in the ten transmitted episodes, when it’s good, it’s exceptionally good. The first major bounce-back occurs in episode 3 ‘Bad Habits’, with the Convent setting proving to be an unexpected goldmine and the series also proving that it’s best when heading in bleak and dangerous directions. Then, from episode 5 onwards, we’re on an upward quality arc (which is only slightly countered by the over-played ‘Comfort Food’ episode with the murderous baking contest), leading to the fabulously bizarre ‘The Norwegians’ where almost all the characters have something at stake, and the show has genuinely never been better.
And of course, US TV being what it is, that’s also the point where the axe fell – three episodes remain unaired (although ITV are starting the second season this week, so may hopefully be screening the remainder there), but thanks to timing issues, there’ll be no wrap-up – Episode 13 will end with a typical mid-season cliffhanger that’s destined to probably never be resolved. It’s ironic, considering that I was certain Pushing Daisies was too cute and stylised to last beyond one season, that that’s essentially what we got (the final episode count is the typical US season of 22 episodes), but it’s a tremendous shame that such a wonderful piece of evolving, long-form drama that’s been denied a decent ending mainly because of the writer’s strike, and the unwise decision to let the show be absent from screens for nearly nine months, when it was only ever going to gain success through word of mouth over a regular schedule. Brilliant performances, especially from Chi McBride, some of the most incredibly layered and pacey dialogue known to man – when it didn’t work (as, to be honest, some of the early second season episodes didn’t), it was like an over-designed cake that was so stuffed with sugar and challenging ingredients that it was almost impossible to eat, but when it did, it was one of the most distinctive, outlandish and kooky shows on TV. Mixing colourful eccentricity with emotional darkness isn’t an easy task, but Pushing Daisies managed it, and given that there’s very little on TV that’s quite as exquisitely crafted, it’ll definitely be missed..
Elsewhere in the world of US network television, Kiefer Sutherland is back wearing his expression of stalwart bafflement in 24, which has at least managed to not completely blow its chances so far. After the widely-derided sixth season (where I jumped ship after about eight episodes) and the Writers Strike causing S7 to be postponed a year, the show’s got to work double-hard to prove its relevance – and while it’s only doing a so-so job on that front, it is at least proving to be entertainingly preposterous and full of lots of terribly tense stares. Going for the evil African Dictator plotline is a sensibly politically correct decision (They’re the new Lethal Weapon 2-era South Africans, the people it’s okay to hate), although the attempt to reflect the times and engage in some kind of debate about torture is rather half-hearted. Yes, Jack has been indicted by the Senate for CTU’s torture-happy past and there are plenty of plot devices here which say ‘Torture is BAD’ (and it’s also notable that we’re seven episodes in, and Jack has only so far gotten as far as threatening someone with torture once), but it’s very clear that the show doesn’t really mean it, and is paying lip service to the moral arguments while making it perfectly clear that there are Bad Men in the world and while we might not like Jack Bauer’s methods, he’s the archetypal all-American guy who’ll beat the odds no matter what it takes and do what needs to be done. 24’s days as a trend-setting show are over – it’s ludicrous fun so far, and it’ll be interesting to see how they sustain this plotline through the entire season, but while it’s daffy fun, it’s really a long way from feeling either fresh or inventive, and it’s certainly not the kind of brash reinvention that the show needs if it’s going to ever feel remotely relevant or significant again.
Meanwhile, Fringe has continued its quest to be interestingly average without ever being truly brilliant – I’m actually getting to the stage where I almost wish the show focussed exclusively on the oddball father-son relationship between Joshua Jackson and mad scientist John Noble. Anna Torv’s glacial FBI agent is getting less interesting as more episodes go by, and while the explosions of nutty mad science are great fun (from heavy duty teleportation to slug-like cold viruses errupting from people’s mouths), the majority of the show is playing like the dullest aspects of Alias combined with The X-Files. It’s keeping me mildly interested on an episode by episode basis, but most of the running plotlines are failing to keep me particularly gripped.
Thankfully, while the J.J. Abrams bandwagon does seem to have hit a reasonable speed-bump with Fringe, the return of Lost is proving to be a hell of a lot more satisfying. Having been pretty damn disappointed by the return of Battlestar Galactica (disappointment that continued with the very overwritten and not especially interesting second episode), I just wanted Lost to be okay – and while it wasn’t in the realms of outright classics, the first two instalments of Season 5 were great fun, very satisfying, and got things off to a running start. It was always going to be interesting to see how they handled the story-structure once we caught up with the flash-forwards at the end of S4, and the ‘time-jumping’ gimmick is rather a damn cool one – the show has been gradually inching towards full-on scifi for a long time, it’s an interesting way of getting around the time gap of three years for those left on the Island (although I kind of liked the idea of just leaping forward three years and then finding out what happenned), and it’s also a way of essentially being able to do flashbacks and fill in certain gaps in the story of the Island and the Dharma Initiative, but do it in -plot. There’ve been strong rumours for a while that we’d be getting a Rosseau-centric episode dealing with her arrival (and subsequent exile), something which seemed pretty difficult considering she died in the middle of S4, but now it’s not so difficult. It’s also good to see that they are (aside from the understandably weird situation with Desmond) following a time-travel model that’s pretty damn rigorous and doesn’t allow for changing the past (and which also follows on from Desmond’s precognition in S3 relating to Charlie – he was actually doing the ‘consciousness time travel’ that he did in S4’s The Constant, and his rescues only delayed Charlie’s eventual demise), and it’s great to see Jeremy Davies’ Daniel Faraday moving up and becoming a major player.
To be honest, there were more than a couple of unwieldy moments here, especially in the Hurley-centric episode 2 ‘The Lie’, and Lost does have the occasional habit of overdoing the deliberate goofiness where Hurley is involved, as well as indulging in some decidedly over-emphatic melodrama (Annoying plane survivor Neil ‘Froghurt”s cry of ‘We can’t even make fire!’ being followed immediately by a flaming arrow to the chest was just a little too OTT), while I’m still not completely sold on the motivation for lying to protect the people on the Island (I always suspected it was a deal with someone like Widmore, that keeping quiet about the Island was the price for getting off the Island and getting their lives back). But, even with these issues, there’s a huge amount of fun to be had here, and I think that’s the important thing for me – Lost can be dark, brutal and violent (no more so than in the fantastically nasty fight between Sayid and the assassin which ended with the assassin being impaled on a dishwasher tray), but unlike BSG it hasn’t forgotten how to tell an engaging story and keep me wanting to know more.
We’ve now got a whole selection of problems and issues to deal with both on and off the Island, while the writers have been sensible and actually given a deadline of 70 hours to reach the Island’s new location (producers Carton Cuse and Damon Lindelof have already confirmed that they aren’t going to be having the Oceanic Six take the entirety of Season 5 to return to the Island). There’s a whole bunch of proto-Others based in L.A. and elsewhere who may or may not be working in the Island’s best interests, the mysterious Mrs Hawking has also turned up, and the whole thing is pitching in some potentially interesting directions. It’s also managing to still deliver great performances with only a few weak links (Michael Emerson continues to be impressive as the eternally shifty Ben Linus) and keep the action centred on the characters without letting it overwhelm things. Now that the end is in sight, the production team can really cut loose and go in some entertainingly experimental directions. I don’t know whether I’m going to love or hate the remaining 32 episodes of Lost, but I am definitely looking forward to finding out…
For anyone whose tastes run in a bloodier direction, there’s HBO series True Blood which is one of the first genuine hits for the channel in a while, and it’s certainly a very different tone for HBO, far more ‘pop’ in its structure and execution, and closer in style to something like Showtime’s Dexter than previous HBO shows. While I did admire John From Cincinatti’s sheer oddball weirdness, it’s nice to see HBO producing a genre show that is actual fun, and doesn’t spend most of its run hinting that something terribly, terribly significant is just about to happen but never really getting around to it (I loved Carnivale while it was on, but the absence of anything resembling an ending (and the fact that the whole ‘Clancy Brown as villain’ plotline was essentially a massive bait-and-switch to reveal Clea Duvall as the real ‘Big Bad’) killed my enthusiasm stone dead, and I really don’t think I could watch it again).
Having read some of Charlaine Harris’ ‘Southern Gothic’ novels I knew what I was getting into (although there’s nothing like the level of explicit sex in the books – there are certain points where it doesn’t seem like Ryan Kwanten as Jason Stackhouse can get through a single episode without either stipping off or having sex (or both)), and it’s mostly an enjoyable take on the lurid and ever-so-ridiculous world of the novels, combining some original ideas with some very clunky ones, and resulting in a soapy saga that starts off awkwardly and suffers from some dreadful exposition, but which gets more and more engaging as it goes along. At heart, it’s your typical attractive-telepathic-waitress meets glowery-Civil-War-veteran-vampire story, set in a world where the Japanese-produced artificial blood known as ‘Tru Blood’ means Vampires have come out of the shadows and are now just another minority with weaknesses and advantages who are trying to fit in, fight back, or take advantage of the situation.
The kind of series where you do end up liking and enjoying the characters, it’s a downright lackadaisical adaptation of the first book in the series (turning a 300-ish page novel into 12 hours of television – although there are aspects of later stories as well), and there are certain points where you can feel the writers desperately trying to tread water so they can leave the important business of the Fangbanger murderer for the final episodes (especially with the chemistry between Jason Stackhouse and Tara, which gets built up for five episodes and then abruptly forgotten about). One serious advantage of the length, and the fact that this is HBO, is that they can portray the central relationship in a pretty full-on way, as virginal waitress Sookie soon finds herself enjoying kinky vampire sex, and the whole thing is full-blooded enough to make the entire Twilight phenomenon look even more ridiculous than it already is.
True Blood does have plenty of weaknesses – Stephen Moyer’s odd performances as the vampiric Bill takes a lot of getting used to, and doesn’t really bed in fully until episode 4, while there are points where the mix feels genuinely clunky, and where characterisation flies out of the window (especially in the climax, where Jason goes from having discovered a small amount of respect for vampires, to shouting ‘hallelujah!’ at a Christian Anti-Vampire service for no real reason). And yet, it’s also colourful, inventive, and with enough plot twists and weirdness to remain a genuinely satisfying watch. There’s definitely room for improvement, but HBO have definitely scored a hit here – and the fact that they’ve greenlit a pilot episode for an adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s bleak and brutal fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire shows that they’re definitely heading for the geekier end of the street, and certainly has my attention for now…
Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, there’s more vampire action in BBC3’s Being Human, which had a pilot outing last year, and has now returned for a full series – and weirdly, the pilot still seems to be officially part of the continuity (the series begins with the ‘setup’ already in place) despite the fact that two of the leads and a whole selection of minor characters have been recast. Based around the idea of a flatshare – but one where the three people involved are a ghost, a vampire and a werewolf, it was initially described in the reports I read as a sitcom, so I was actually kind of surprised when I sat down to watch Episode 1 (having missed the pilot) and found that it’s actually downright dark, and a lot more successful at the drama than the comedy (which is often rather forced and unwieldy). It isn’t going to win any awards for originality, with the whole vampire subplot basically having been hi-jacked wholesale from Angel, while it also suffers from that terrible disease known as ‘Over Expressive Soundtrack-itus’, where it’s impossible to have a significant scene without slathering a completely relevant pop song all over it.
And yet, despite all these problems, and a plotline that really didn’t surprise that much, it actually rather engaged me – the three leads are very well cast, I like the characters, they’ve actually got the flatsharing vibe quite accurately, and the whole thing is played with the right level of conviction and grunge so that it actually feels like it’s real. It almost (and that’s an ‘almost’ in triplicate neon) feels like a drama equivalent of Spaced, taking the issues of being in your twenties and playing them out in a completely exagerrated, fantastical way – not saying that it’s destined to be that good (or to have a pretty damn disappointing second season, in the way that Spaced did), but I was quietly impressed by what I saw, and I’m certainly interested enough to see what happens in the next episode.
Going from werewolves to detectives, my quest to catch up with the officially pronounced Greatest TV Show Ever continues with Season 2 of The Wire – and it’s interesting to see how the focus of the show widens out, and how the novelistic format of the first season continues and changes during the twelve episodes of the second season. It’s a very different show here, and some of the decisions work better than others – keeping the Barksdale gang’s story ticking away in the background is a good idea, and certainly keeps the story ticking over for its inevitable return in Season 3, but the fact that it barely connects with Season 2’s main plotline means that it does feel a little out of place, and doesn’t capture that brilliant, diamond-hard focus of the first season. The tone is very different here – elegaic and melancholic, with Tom Waits’ smoky, jazzy original version of ‘Down in the Hole’ over the titles fitting the mood perfectly, and while I’m not sure that Season 2 is as satisfying as S1, or that I’m going to feel the urge to rewatch S2 as much (S1 felt like a genuine novel, while S2 has stunning highlights yet doesn’t hang together as well), it is still an amazing piece of television. The little human moments for the characters are the things that make it -like the sequence where McNulty is on the verge of having a one-night stand with Officer and single mother Beatrice Russel (the fantastic Amy Ryan) and decides not to at the last moment, because he actually respects her – it’s quietly played, subtle, and contrasts wonderfully with his drunken sex with a waitress at the opening of the episode. There’s also the gradual accretion of detail, following the trail of the Docks investigation at almost every step as they work out how material is being smuggled – leading up to the sequence where the track a container to the relevant warehouse, a sequence which is utterly thrilling despite the fact that there’s no obvious drama and nothing goes wrong.
It’s satisfying because of everything that’s led up to it, and The Wire makes this sort of gradual drip-drip of detail work in so many ways, from illustrating Frank Sobatka’s doomed attempts to do right for the Union by helping out with what he later finds out is sex-trafficking, to Nicolas Sobatka’s utterly believable journey from dockworker to drugdealer – not an ‘evil’ moral choice, but a barely perceptible series of moral compromises and bad decisions that takes him in that direction. One thing that adds to the melancholic tone is that unlike S1, there’s no gigantic bust at the end of the series – while lots of the criminal setup is taken down, a combination of bad luck, bureaucracy, Homeland Security and complete incompetence make sure that the brains of the operation go free, and no matter what may have been done, it’ll all start up once again. Combine this with a lack of anything as eventful as Kima’s shooting in S1, and the fact that almost every single romantic relationship on the show is obviously destined to end in tears, The Wire S2 is brilliant but very unforgiving, a sad and downbeat look at the fate of the American working man, and another set of facets to the show’s portrait of Baltimore and city life in general.
One thing is true, however – The Wire is utterly brilliant, but it’s also heavy going, and the kind of drama where I’m rationing myself to one episode a night (or even less- I’ve started S3, but have been taking it very slow at the moment). It’s not the kind of show where I can imagine myself sitting down and binging on an entire season in a couple of days – and there are points at the moment where, as amazing as The Wire is, I’m also finding myself yearning for the ballistic adrenaline kick of The Shield. Another series where I’m only now catching up long after the fact, The Shield is a very different beast from The Wire in many ways – in certain ways it’s much shallower and more blatantly commercial, but it’s also a show to go to for different things, and it’s a show that’s prepared to have an energetic amount of fun with its central concept. I’m only in as far as the end of S1, but while I initially was enjoying it but finding it a little throwaway, I was soon finding myself burning throuigh almost half of S1 in less than 24 hours.
It’s fantastically compulsive stuff with a wonderfully conspiratorial attitude to its main character – Vic Mackey is never anything less than a complete corrupt cop with a totally messed up moral code, and yet Michael Chilkis makes it impossible not to somehow root for him and at least understand him. He’s a bastard, and yet he’s a thoroughly entertaining bastard to be around, while the plotlines which orbit around him are great stuff, leading up to a truly brilliant two-part climax where the situation around a simple hit-and-run spirals out of all control, resulting in a full-scale riot, major-league corruption, and a gang of cop-killing assassins on the loose. I haven’t yet gotten around to obtaining Season 2 as yet, but I’ve a feeling it might not be too long, as I’m keen to find out what kind of dark directions this turbo-charged series can go in…