Top TV Shows of 2018

There’s been some absolutely banging TV in 2018. From the new season of Doctor Who (come on Jodie!) to the emotionally turbulent Kiri on Channel 4, to binge-worthy Netflix originals like Home and Mindhunter, to the latest iteration of Queer Eye.

Better Call Saul Season 4

Not that they are comparable (though people really love comparing them), but Better Call Saul has surpassed the dizzying heights that Breaking Bad reached in it’s climactic seasons. Better Call Saul has been climbing higher and higher since it’s incarnation, but this season Vince Gilligan and the team have really stepped up the stakes.

There’s an effortless to Better Call Saul which is rarely seen in television programmes. Gilligan takes his time letting the story unfold, there’s no rush for events to happen or for the consequences of actions to take hold. One of the story arcs this season involved the building of Gus’ underground meth lab – something which could have been completed inside one episode. Yet Better Call Saul labours over the small details – the logistics, the manpower, how the workers will live etc. It makes mountains out of molehills and is divine for doing so.

Then there is the chemistry between Jimmy and Kim. You’d be hard pressed to find an opening scene which explains the relationship between two people than the split-screen ‘Somethin’ Stupid’ pre-credits sequence. My favourite part of season 4.

Killing Eve

BBC’s runaway success of this year is Killing Eve, the show that everyone couldn’t get enough of. As well as it’s biting sense of humour, Killing Eve was a nail bitingly tense and highly rewarding thriller. Even better – season 2 is coming in 2019.

Fresh from her magnum opus Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge created one of the most enticing, slick and darkly funny series to hit the BBC in years in the form of Killing Eve. With performances from the excellent Jodie Comer, Sandra Oh and Fiona Shaw, an incredible array of locations across Europe, and enough double crossing to keep us guessing for weeks – Killing Eve is the feminist masterpiece we’ve all been waiting for. I know I’m not the only one who was secretly hoping Villanelle and Eve were going to run off together into the sunset…

The only other thing to say about Killing Eve is that I bought a TV licence just so I could watch it and I have precisely zero regrets.

Wild Wild Country

As documentary series go, Wild Wild Country has to be the best of this year. A cult I had never before heard of, the followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh were a fascinating and disturbing people to follow. Especially Sheelah.

A good documentary needs compelling and intriguing characters, and Ma Anand Sheela, right hand woman to cult leader extraordinaire Bhagwan, is exactly that. A woman of integrity, motivation and a desire to succeed – one never knows exactly what one is getting with Sheela. At times, she seems to be a reasonable person but the stories which filter through from other Rajneesh members tell a very different story.

A tale of clashing cultures, NIMBY-ism and obsession – Wild Wild Country weaves a riveting story throughout it’s arc. Never giving away anything too soon, directors Maclain and Chapman Way keep us guessing for most the season, only to completely floor us in the last few episodes.

Bojack Horseman S5

Every season of Bojack Horseman is brilliant, because… it’s Bojack. Always ready to give us some excellent commentary on celebrity culture, depression, addiction and relationships – season 5 is no different.

Yet, in a way, season 5 is very different to all those that came before. With the added layer of dialogue surrounding the #metoo movement (coincidentally the only show that has actually used #metoo as a jumping off point rather than a cheap storyline), Bojack slides slowly from someone we identify with to someone we might all be enabling.

The more we get to know Bojack, Mr Peanutbutter, Princess Carolyn, Todd and Diane, the more we begin to see more of ourselves in each one of them. How is it that the show about a cartoon horse has become the best representation and refraction of what it means to be human?

Homecoming

In her first move to television, Julia Roberts starred as Heidi Bergman in Sam Esmail’s new Amazon series – Homecoming. Esmail, best known as the brain’s behind Mr Robot (also Amazon), is similar tonally to his previous work yet tackles very different issues.

Set predominantly in the Homecoming facility where military personnel are seemingly recuperating on their return from war zones, Homecoming sets up an utterly compelling dialogue about PTSD, therapy and capitalism. Roberts’ Heidi was a counsellor at the Homecoming facility which we see through flashbacks, but is now struggling to come to terms with what it is she has been a part of.

The format is integral in making Homecoming as compelling a watch as it is. Half an hour episodes mean that it never overstays its welcome, the editing is snappy and the pace never lets up. Flitting between present day and the past (with subtle differences in frame sizing) keeps the tension throughout. Roberts is phenomenal, as is Stephan James and Bobby Cannavale.

Norsemen Season 2

This little known show is the only show about Vikings you need in your life right now. Or ever. Unlike an Amazon show of the aforementioned race, Norsemen is a comedy to end of all comedies – it’s Game of Thrones meets The Office, or some other similarly odd analogy.

Focusing on a small Viking town of Norheim in 790AD and the going’s on of the people who live there, Norsemen critiques and revels in Viking culture to wildly hilarious results. After the failings of Chieftain Orm in season 1, Arvid is now in charge and he has a lot of decisions to make. Mainly regarding his love life. Combined with the pillaging and the conflicts with other tribes (mainly the now no-handed Volk), life isn’t so easy for these Vikings.

The humour is subtle and nothing short of genius. My favourite moment of the season was Volk’s henchman checking his wrist (empty of any watch as it is 790AD after all) and then stating ‘I just like to look at my wrist when people are late’.

Special Mention: Inside Number 9 Live

Making live episodes of TV is becoming a bit of a ‘thing’ right now. Eastenders have done it, TOWIE have done it, even The Simpsons have given it a shot. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see Inside Number 9‘s live episode well… actually live, but I can only imagine it must have been even better than watching it via catchup.

It’s the most meta of meta, as introspective as it can possibly be – in a way that Inside Number 9 does better than any other show. The four series strong show has a way of pulling the proverbial rug out from underneath you every single time, and the live episode is no different. It does so in a way which also makes you question what it is exactly you are watching.

Starting with a seemingly run of the mill episode (an old man trying to return a lost mobile phone to its owner) suddenly becomes something altogether different. Several programming issue cards later (provided by BBC2) it’s not clear at all whether we are watching a live show or a complete digital meltdown complete with the ghosts of Granada studios. It’s basically brilliant. This is the best way to do a live episode – Pemberton and Shearsmith have done it again.

Bandersnatch: Well Done, You Played Yourself

Hype for Black Mirror’s new interactive episode started a few weeks ago when some Netflix users discovered a hidden ‘coming seen’ episode on the streaming site. Rumours flew around the internet – what was is Bandersnatch, will there be more, and what exactly does an interactive episode mean?

Readers beware – from here on there be spoilers for Bandersnatch. This is also more of a ‘here’s my experience with Bandersnatch rather than a review, as I will be talking explicitly about the choices I made during.

Interactive it certainly is, though perhaps the best way to describe Bandersnatch is exactly the way the game within the game is described – it’s a Choose Your Own Adventure. I’m not a gamer myself (my most played and enjoyed games are either the Lego series, Kirby or Spyro) but I am married to one, so I got a bit of background on the Choose Your Own Adventure genre of games. One that stands out from the rest is The Stanley Parable – which is described as an ‘interactive storytelling and walking simulator video game’. They key thing about the Stanley Parable is that the freedom of choice within the game is not merely an illusion – you are free to choose the options you desire, which is sometimes (most of the time) against the will of the supremely pissed off narrator. Throughout the game, you (as Stanley) make choices which can end in several different endings – I’ve been reliably informed that there are roughly thirteen different endings. Every choice you make leads to one of these endings, but the narrative weaves itself back in and out of different pathways, which basically means you are never told to ‘go back’ or ‘game over’ – rather, your choices may lead you to the same point that you would have got to anyway, just in a different loop so to speak.

Confused? So was I. As I said, I am not much of a gamer and so my I was initially a bit disappointing that the new Black Mirror episode was going to expect me – someone who likes to be spoon-fed content – to actually make active decisions about the protagonists future. Still, I went in with an open mind and with ample time, just in-case Bandersnatch was going to take longer than the designated 90 minutes Netflix suggests it will. This is a good move – to experience most of the endings, you will need more than 90 minutes.

Bandersnatch is set in 1984 and follows the story of Stefan, a young videogame designer who is looking for an opportunity to complete and sell his game ‘Bandersnatch’ – a Choose Your Own Adventure game based on a book of the same name. Get it? Stefan’s day, and our viewing, starts out with simple choices (Frosties or Sugar Puffs – we went for Frosties) and gradually leans into more divisive decisions which will inevitably and irrevocably change the direction of Stefan’s life.

Bandersnatch is not like the aforementioned Stanley Parable. It does give you frequent opportunities to make decisions for Stefan which change the narrative, but instead of following through when viewers choose certain path, Bandersnatch has a clear set of choices that it wants you to make. If you make the wrong decision (EG: die before the game is completed, or refuse to talk to your therapist about your mother), Bandersnatch will either aggressively encourage you to pick the ‘correct option’, will launch a soft reset where you are taken (without consent) back to an earlier point) or will inform you that your proverbial game is over and that you should go back and try again.

On our first viewing (or playthrough), we decided that Stefan should take the job at Ritman – a move that felt inline with what we knew about Stefan’s character and his desires. This led very quickly to the ‘Bandersnatch’ game being developed by a team in-office, which was then reviewed horribly when it came out. Stefan, without our interfering, chooses to ‘go back’ and try again – implying that when it came round to refusing or accepting the job offer again, we should refuse. Continuing on this path, we ended up with the ‘Netflix Fight’ ending – which was incredibly jarring as it doesn’t tie up any ends and feels more like a bonus, comic ending that the audience should be able to access once they’ve reached a more conclusive ending.

Between the soft resets and the show itself deciding to start again in particular instances, the idea of Bandersnatch feeling truly interactive is kind of lost. Of course, this is part of the narrative – the show is exploring the idea of freedom of choice vs a predetermined pathway – but I didn’t feel that this was effectively translated into the choices onscreen.

At first I made decisions which I felt Stefan would have made – I attempted to ‘keep character’ as it were. It quickly became obvious that this was not the correct pathway – for example, accepting the job at Ritman ended in Colin stating that we’d chosen wrong and we should go back and try again. Though the creators of the show have explicitly stated that there is no right or wrong way to ‘play’ Bandersnatch, there is definitely a particular set of choices you are being heavily encouraged to choose so any idea that I was deciding Stefan’s fate fell kind of flat. There is, of course, the argument that this is exactly what Bandersnatch is intending to do – give the audience the illusion of choice but to snatch the rug out from underneath them – but this feels like it could have been executed in a more sophisticated way.

The other main issue is that the story itself is relatively uninteresting – at least in comparison to the other Black Mirror episodes which have gone before it. It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure which depicts a person trying to create a Choose Your Own Adventure. It’s akin to a novel about someone writing a novel. Sometimes it works, but for the most part the narrative feels sparse and the only thing keeping the audience engaged is the interactive elements rather than a compelling storyline.

Overall, Bandersnatch is a neat idea which feels (like ‘Bandersnatch’ in so many of the endings) unfinished. There are unlimited references to other episodes of Black Mirror (Nosedive, Mental Head to name two), an easter egg playable game and secret endings but none of these things disguise Bandersnatch’s unrealised potential. It’s disappointing because it feels as if it’s on the edge of something quite exciting, but it never gets there in favour of cheap gimmicks and call-backs.

My Bandersnatch experience was most enjoyable once it had finished and I scrolled endlessly through twitter laughing at all the memes.. Unlike with Stefan, my choices here are limited and easy – like or retweet.

Comedy as Activism: Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’

**spoilers for Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Nanette’ Special on Netflix. Please watch before reading!**

Netflix have just released comedian Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up ‘Nanette’, and everyone is talking about it, and not without very good reason.

In Gadsby’s hour and half routine (named ‘Nanette’ after someone Gadsby thought she’d get a shows worth of material out of, but didn’t), she takes us on an emotional journey through gender, sexuality, the state of society today and why she needs to give up comedy.

Whilst watching ‘Nanette’ (amongst the sniffling into my tissues and applauding loudly even though I was alone in my room), a question began to form in my mind. As Hannah Gadsby took us through the reasons why she feels she needs to quit comedy, I started to wonder what the point of comedy was. Is it to purely make others laugh? Or is laughter a by product? Does comedy have to be funny to still be classified as comedy? This is a question that’s been asked and there’s been attempts to answer it. Brian Logan’s article for The Guardian sparked a debate on whether ‘trauma-comedy’ sets qualify as comedy.

One comedian Logan discusses at length is Sofie Hagen. I’ve been lucky enough to see both Shimmer Shatter and ‘Dead Baby Frog’ performed live, and so whilst I might be quite biased, I also vehemently disagreed with Logan’s assertion that ‘Dead Baby Frog’ was not comedy. Though it left me feeling pensive and introspective, I’d also had the sweet release of laughter throughout.  I spent the next few days going over the more emotionally vulnerable moments in Hagen’s show, connecting them to my own life.

This question of whether comedy = laughter also surfaces when watching ‘Nanette’, as there are definitive moments within the show which are not there to make the audience laugh. Gadsby talks within ‘Nanette’ at length about comedy existing as a two-part structure. You say something that builds tension, then the punchline releases that tension, which enables everyone to laugh. Tension and release.  In ‘Nanette’, there are many moments where there are no punchlines. Gadsby talks about traumatic incidents in her life but doesn’t relieve the audience by giving us a joke at the end to let us know that it is all okay.

There is a similar moment within Tiff Stevenson’s ‘Bombshell’. Stevenson speaks honestly about the current political and social climate within our country, and at one point she comments on Grenfell. The tension has been raised, and because it’s comedy there is an expectation of some sort of release. Stevenson tells the audience that there is no punchline, because it’s not funny. Again, the purpose of this part of the show was deliberately not to make the audience.

Comedians do spend a inordinate amount of time on-stage berating themselves for the pleasure of others. It’s no coincidence that a huge number of comedians suffer from depression and other mental illnesses – so much so that it’s a regular film and TV trope. It seems that something is declared comedy outright if the person delivering it is criticising themselves (or their own ‘group’ in society), but not so much if they are making a point about about another group in society.

‘Nanette’ follows the usual rules of set-up, punchline, laugh all through Gadsby’s teasing about the lesbian community, her own coming out story and reactions from her small Tasmanian towns-folk. The punchlines stopped rolling in when Gadsby started speaking seriously about how she’s been treated in her life, and how the act of making of a joke out of it has been detrimental to her processing her own trauma. When Gadsby speaks to the men in the room, pleads with them to pull their fingers out and just be better, you can hear the tension. It’s powerful and tangible. It’s an authenticity that is unparalleled in any show (comedy or otherwise) that I have ever seen before.

Comedy has always been about ‘sticking up for the little guy’. Even the dictionary definition details comedy not only as a ‘jokes to make people laugh’ but also as satire in which people overcome adversity, usually in a humorous situation. Gadsby, Hagen and Stevenson (and many more) are doing just that. They are using humour, but also powerful ideas and concepts, to triumph over adversity. The thing about adversity though, is that others have to understand the adversity you are facing before you can collectively laugh about overcoming it. Those ‘little guys’ that comedy has always stuck up for – they’ve traditionally always been men. Perhaps men that don’t necessarily fit the traditional ideals of masculinity, but they’ve usually been straight, white men all the same. Mainstream audiences simply aren’t yet used to hearing stories from people who aren’t men, and they are even less used to hearing a gay woman pointing out the injustices in a world where ‘the little guy’ is doing alright comparatively.

In ‘Nanette’, Gadsby uses her sharp and intelligent humour to give a platform to these issues. Paraphrasing here, but her discussion of how anger has no value is searingly on point. Her stories have value, but anger can only breed further anger. Comedy and activism can go hand in hand to create something incredibly powerful, and Hannah Gadsby has done just that.

 

 

Black Mirror Season 4 Round-up

Season 4 of Black Mirror, the TV programme designed to crush whatever part of your soul may have survived the past year, has landed back on Netflix just in time for 2018. As with the last season, below I’ve rated each episode from worst to best (in my humble opinion). I have to admit that I wasn’t really digging Black Mirror this season. Since coming to Netflix, it seems to have lost of a bit of it’s punch and, particularly in this season, individual episodes often take an unexpected twist seemingly for the sake of having a twist, rather than making sense in the narrative.

Watching the first five episodes, I felt a bit cheated. Instead of being left with a feeling of utter despair and a new found fear of technology, I was left with a feeling of ‘so what?’. It was only on watching ‘Black Museum’ that I felt as if I was actually watching Black Mirror – the show which has previously left me reeling on my sofa.

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t the shock factor that makes Black Mirror what it is. A sudden twist or a blind reveal do not a good episode make. No, the successful episodes of Black Mirror turn the tables on us, the viewer. They do not force an agenda, but aggressively encourage us to interrogate our own ideologies. They do not pull off cheap tricks, favouring in depth character study and study life-changing technology on a micro-scale. The greatest episodes (think ‘15 Million Merits’, ‘Be Right Back’ or ‘White Rabbit’) investigate the horror of living in a world so close to our own. In its worst moments, it merely asks us to fear dying – a much easier concept to grasp.

So, from worst to best (and I am fully aware that this may be the most contradictory list to any others out there, but hear me out)

Crocodile

(aka drink driving is bad)

Crocodile is odd, to say the least. Part scandi-noir, part anti drink-driving campaign, it details how one minor mistake can alter the rest of one’s life forever. Mia (Andrea Riseborough) and Rob (Andrew Gower) are driving through snow capped mountains, after a big night out partying (drugs included). After hitting a cyclist on a deserted road, Rob quickly decides he would rather not go to prison, and Mia reluctantly assists him with disposing of the cyclist into a nearby lake.

15 years later, Rob and Mia meet again. Mia is now a big time career woman in the architecture world, and Rob has shown up to her hotel bedroom whilst she is away at conference. He’s feeling guilty about what they did and tells Mia he is planning to turn himself in. Mia, who now has an established career and a family, is not down for this idea. She, in a predictable turn of events, kills Rob in the hotel room and disposes of his body in a building site of what we assume is going to be a building she has designed.

So far, so Scandi-noir thriller. Unfortunately for Mia, a determined insurance investigator by the name of Shazia is about to make things a lot harder for her. Shazia is on a mission to get compensation from a self driving pizza van company and is collecting the memories of everyone who was around Mia’s hotel that night. I say collecting because Shazia has a sort of memory machine where she can record the subjective memories of the person she is interviewing. This is bad news for Mia as the pizza van incident happened mere moments before she killed off Rob for good. So what is Mia to do?

I’ll give you a hint. It involves Mia evolving from accidental bystander in a drink-drive fatality to full blown child murderer.

‘Crocodile’ got a lot of good press (some people claiming it was the bleakest episode of Black Mirror ever) but for me, it was far too predictable. There’s very little that is interesting about a successful white woman going on a killing spree to stop her life from being destroyed, and Mia’s downward spiral was etched in stone from the moment she killed Rob. It was also disappointing to never get a clear idea of Shazia’s character before she was cheaply disposed of. The brutality she and her family endure (a mixed-race family vs a successful white woman) at the hands of Mia also feels cruel rather than nuanced in anyway. Brutality for the sake of brutality is never a good idea. The reveal? Also predictable, but has made me think that having a guinea pig might be quite useful in future…

Hang the DJ

(aka Tinder is bad)

It’s a shame that ‘Hang the DJ’ has landed second to last on this list as I enjoyed the vast majority of the episode. However, the twist at the end only serves to do two things; firstly it removes any kind of sincerity the episode had, and secondly it’s the technological equivalent to ‘they woke up and it was all a dream’. Let me explain.

‘Hang the DJ’ revolves around the world of app-dating. Couples meet in the same restaurant, check their expiry dates on their app and go from there. When Frank (Joe Cole) and Amy (Georgina Campbell) are paired up, they get on pretty well but are only given 12 hours remaining for their relationship. Instead of having sex that night they innocently hold hands, a small gesture but one that solidifies their chemistry.  Over the next year or so, both of them are set up with other people that the system has chosen for them. Frank is in an incredibly unhappy relationship with a woman who seems to hate him for no reason other than the fact he was late on their first date, and Amy ends up discovering annoying ticks about the  man she is paired with. Eventually, after a series of short relationships, they are paired with each other again, but not for long. Frank, unable to stop himself from checking their expiry date though they had agreed not to, kickstarts their countdown clock which goes from five years to just several hours. Eventually, they both decide to try and escape the system, only for the audience to realise that the Amy and Frank we have been watching are merely a simulation occurring inside a dating app. The simulation has been run 1000 times, with 998 sims ending in the two of them choosing to reject the system to stay together.

Though Campbell and Cole are fantastic as the technology-crossed lovers, ‘Hang the DJ’ manages to completely undermine anything we felt for the characters with its final twist. We’ve become invested in these characters for the entire episode and to essentially erase them from existence to introduce the ‘real’ Amy and Frank left me with a feeling of ‘so what?’. It almost seemed like an entirely pointless exercise – though cynical of the system, the real Amy and Frank still choose to follow through on it.

Metalhead

(aka robot dogs are bad)

Episode 5, ‘Metalhead’ can be summed up as Maxine Peake running through various landscapes whilst being chased by K9’s evil alter-ego. It’s pacy, it’s racy and it doesn’t hold back. Two of the three characters in the entire episode are killed within the first five minutes, leaving only Peake’s Bella to try and survive her ordeal.

Peake does give a phenomenal performance (as is usual) as the isolated Bella running for her life. The stand-out scene in terms of tension comes when the robot dog traps Bella in a tree, revealing it’s only weakness: it can’t climb up the tree with it’s broken paw. Bella decides to wait it out and soon realises – with no verbal communication to convey this – that if she continually keeps it awake, it’s battery power will deplete. It works and Bella escapes, for the moment. Later, Bella comes across an abandoned house, home only to two dead bodies who appear to have committed suicide. Soon enough, the dog has tracked Bella down, and though she succeeds in destroying the machine, it leaves her with a final parting gift – a tracker lodged in her neck. Knowing that the tracker will lead even more dogs to the house, Bella makes the excruciating decision to end her own life rather than let the dogs at her.

Whilst ‘Metalhead’ is a fast and remarkably furious episode, it could do with a little more context. We gather snippets of information at the beginning – the pigs are all dead because of the dogs – and Bella speaks on the phone to various unknown people. In these moments, it’s hard to care much about the conversation because we have no idea who Bella is talking to. Are they other survivors? Is there a safe refuge? How many humans are left? Is someone controlling the dogs or have they risen up like a robo-rebellion? At the risk of ruining a bit of the mystery, ‘Metalhead’ is lost in a bit of a void.

I think ‘Metalhead’ would have made an incredible feature film. I am just not sure how I feel about it as part of the wider Black Mirror universe. Perhaps this is me being pedantic, but it makes little sense in the wider world – how does it fit in to the chronology of previous episodes? As a stand alone film, the lack of context would have been exciting and would have kept viewers wanting more, but in the middle of a series? It felt like something was missing.

Page 2 for the next three episodes!

The Box: What I’ve Been Binging Recently (#2)

 MINDHUNTER

From the creative talons of David Fincher comes Mindhunter, a new Netflix series exploring the behavioural sciences unit within the FBI as they attempt to categorise a new brand of murderer: serial killers. It’s not as boring as that synopsis makes it out to be, I promise. Based on real life events and real serial killers, agents Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany)) are set on a journey into the psyche of some pretty awful people.

It takes a few episodes to get started, but when it does Mindhunter is compelling viewing. Once we start to see the resistance of the Bureau to putting any of Holden and Tench’s research into practice, the much needed tension arises. The addition of Dr Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) partway through the season also gives us another perspective on what Ford and Tench are doing – and is it right?

I struggled with parts of Mindhunter (if you’ve seen it, you’ll probably know which parts I mean). I have a serious issue with the way women are portrayed, discussed and victimised. It’s tricky because the series is predominantly about men that murder women, but I had hoped that we were past simply treating women as canon fodder. It’s why Carr’s character actually turns the show around – it runs the risk of being a bit on an unchecked boys club (a bit like Ford’s tactics on interviewing subjects) but has so far steered just about clear.

Mindhunter has also taught me that maybe the FBI just attracts people with weird sounding names – Holden, Tench, Mulder, Scully? I’m seeing a pattern here…

THE GOOD PLACE

This lovely little show snuck up on me without me even realising. Before I knew what was happening, I was six episodes in and loving every moment.

Mike Schur, creator of Parks & Rec and Brooklyn 99, brings his talent for fun ensemble cast shows to The Good Place – a TV show about heaven, hell and all things in between. Kristin Bell stars as Eleanor Shellstrop, who has recently died. She is welcomed by Michael (Ted Danson) to the Good Place, an afterlife where people who have been morally good throughout their lives have earned the right to spend eternity. The only problem? Eleanor is not a good person, not even a little bit. Whilst the first few episodes are a bit slow, The Good Place is highly addictive watching. It’s funny, easy to watch and the characters are completely lovable. And Adam Scott has a cameo appearance. What’s not to love!

The Good Place doesn’t hit the comedy highs of B99 or Parks and Rec, but it’s a different creature. It’s a comfortable show, which plays with it’s premise over and over again to wonderfully inventive results. The Good Place feel intent on bringing joy, hope and friendship to our screens – which I feel we could all use a bit of right now. It’s the perfect show for snuggling up under a duvet whilst pondering existentialism. Bonus – if you have ever studied philosophy, you’ll really appreciate some of the jokes. Also, Janet is the greatest character ever. Fact.

BETTER CALL SAUL

Series 3 of our favourite spin off returned to Netflix this summer and I’ve just got round to finishing it off. I absolutely love Better Call Saul (as can be witnessed in my essay for Bitch Flicks here) and I think it’s just gone from strength to strength each season.

This season focused on the aftermath of Jimmy’s confession to Chuck about the Mesa Verde documents he had forged to incriminate Chuck. The two brothers have never exactly been close, but this season they are about ready to kill each other. Chuck’s condition worsens, Jimmy ends up being struck off from practising law for a year and there’s a story-line about a senior citizen losing all her friends, which made me sob like a baby.

Kim, for me, has been a real highlight of series 3. She’s already been established as a damn good lawyer,  a loyal friend and someone who you’d want on your side if you are in hot water – but this season we get more of Kim’s highs and lows, making her feel more human. Equally, the introduction is very exciting, and it now feels like we are gearing up to something explosive in the fourth season. Can’t wait!

 

MY MAD FAT DIARY

My Mad Fat Diary is a 2013 Channel 4 comedy centred on Rae – a teenage girl who has just been discharged from a rehabilitation centre for young people with mental health issues. Yes, it doesn’t sound like a comedy, and sometimes it’s not at all funny, but My Mad Fat Diary is the show I so wished I had to lean on when I was a young, insecure teenager.

From explicit discussions of masturbation, to the stark reality of mental illness and eating disorders, we journey through Rae’s life in recovery as she writes her hopes, dreams and sexual fantasies in her diary – as instructed to by therapist Kester. Fortunately, she quickly makes a new group of friends (with a few boys for her to faun over) but she ultimately struggles with the freedoms she has living in the ‘normal’ world.

The show’s frank and brutally honest portrayal of just how awful being a teenager is, in addition to the messages of body positvity and sex positivity are what makes it so remarkable. My Mad Fat Diary is both progressive and utterly hilarious at the same time.

The entire box-set is streaming on All4 now, and it’s perfect for snuggling down in your duvet with a cup of tea with.

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE

You know that feeling where you can’t work out if a TV show is a beautifully shot work of sexy art, or whether it’s beautifully shot pornography? Yeah – that’s The Girlfriend Experience. Joking aside, there is a LOT of sex. Think how much a lot of sex would be, then double it. That’s how much sex there is in The Girlfriend Experience.

It’s not just about sex, though you would be forgiven for thinking so if you have only watched the first four or so episodes. The story-line only really picks up after episode five as the first half of the series seems to exist to lure us in with semi-pornographic sex scenes and then jump us with a pretty complicated narrative in the second half. Still, for the most part it is easy watching. I mostly appreciated that The Girlfriend Experience is smashing the stereotypes surrounding women, sex and sex workers themselves. The main character Christine, clearly enjoys having sex and she enjoys being paid to have sex even more. Instead of portraying her as a victim, creator Amy Seimetz allows her to have autonomy.

And you will definitely start doing research on exactly how one becomes an escort…

Master of None and the Nice Guy Delusion

Last month, Master of None returned to Netflix for a second season. Aziz Ansari’s Dev had left New York heartbroken after a pretty heavy break-up, to embark on a pasta making apprenticeship in Modena, Italy. Master of None had been a bit of a revelation in terms of it’s frank and honest discussions about gender, relationships, representation, immigration and the media. So I have to say, I was pretty excited when it got renewed, and spent most of the year counting down the days until it came back. So you have to believe me when I say it absolutely pains me to write this article about how Master of None has developed a Nice Guy issue.

Before I start, let me just say that there are many highlights of season 2 which include and are not limited to: Arno and Dev’s beautiful friendship (showing that men can have emotional connections with each other), the difficult sexual assault story-line with Chef Jeff, the interrogation of modern app-based dating and every scene in which Aziz Ansari’s real life parents star as Dev’s parents.

It was ‘Thanksgiving’ however, which rated far above and beyond the rest of the series, for me. The episode is self contained and takes place in Denise’s house, Dev’s best friend (played by Lena Waithe), showing several thanksgiving dinners which span through their childhood. Not only did we get a charming insight into the origins of Denise and Dev’s friendship, we also were invited to understand Denise’s character better. In half an hour, Master of None introduced us to her family, her childhood, her early relationships and showed us her struggle with her mother with regards to her sexuality. In the rest of the series, Denise has been a hilariously funny and down to earth ‘sidekick’ for Dev, and it was satisfying to see Denise get a narrative arc of her own. Not only do we rarely get to see black or lesbian stories told on TV, but together? Unheard of. For this, Master of None has done itself proud.

What let it down though? Well, for all of Dev’s allyship and good intentions, it turns out that he is actually a “Nice Guy”. A man who talks the talk and claims to be a feminist, but inadvertently undermines and objectifies women all the same.

As explained by Nicole Froio at Bitch Media, Master of None doesn’t seem to be able to create believable or interesting female characters. This is, of course, with the exception of Denise but Lena Waithe co-wrote Denise’s episode with Aziz Ansari, so this goes some way to explaining why Denise is a well rounded and interesting character. I actually didn’t pick up on Master of None’s women problem until season 2, where the issue became largely apparent.

In ‘First Date’ we see Dev going on the same date with a number of different women. We never get the opportunity to know them at all (not like we know Dev), and they all come across as either shallow, opportunistic, not available, too available or generally not nice. They are nothing more than bodies, with no backstories and nothing to say for themselves. They are there for Dev to date and dismiss, primarily. In fact, the only women that Dev interacts with at all in a social setting are his mother, his dates and Denise (who is pointedly not a love interest as she is gay). 

Which brings me nicely onto the character of Francesca (Alessandra Mastronardi). Dev meets Francesca when he is in Italy, learning how to make pasta in her Grandmother’s cafe. Francesca and Dev strike up a friendship and remain in contact when he goes back to the States, prompting her to get in touch when she comes over with fiance Pino for a visit. To begin with Francesca and Dev are just friends, but their relationships slowly evolves into something more. Dev develops feelings for her, and interprets every conversation and moment  with Francesca as a sign that she too is interested in pursuing a relationship. She never out-rightly says that she is unhappy with Pino, or that she wants to take things further with Dev. Eventually the tension that has built between them comes to a head and, when Francesca says that she cannot pursue anything with Dev, he accuses her of using him.

Without having any regard for her feelings or the complicity of the matter at hand, Dev explodes – telling Francesca that she simply wanted someone to experiment with, as the only man she has ever been with is Pino. It’s a cliche at best, and completely misogynistic at worst, for Dev to assume that Francesca hasn’t really explored her sexuality or her desires because she has only slept with one person. In one respect it makes her even more desirable because of her ‘virginal’ past, but it also is implied that Dev thinks he knows more about sex and relationships than she does. Dev categorically believes that he deserves this relationship with Francesca just because he is a Nice Guy,  even though she tells him no.

Even without this incredibly simplified view on relationships, Dev also reduces Francesca to an object of desire. Master of None paints her as a quirky but loveable, feminine yet ‘one of the lads’ type. Sounds suspiciously like a manic-pixie-dream-girl to me. Francesca encompasses every element of Amy’s speech in Gone Girl (even though I immensely dislike the film, it’s got a point). Francesca’s only purpose in the series is to be pretty and unattainable – basically to be the girl of Dev’s dreams, as explained over at Bustle by EJ Dickson. She dances round Dev’s kitchen to Italian music in his shirt, she’s only ever had one partner, she like classical films, she drinks beer and she’s immeasurably pretty. I can’t of a single thing about Francesca that isn’t skewed by the way that Dev objectifies her.

It’s a real shame because Ansari himself has, on numerous occasions, talked about feminism and the basic representation of women in TV. Master of None has one of the best records for diversity on TV, almost all of the characters are POC and they don’t fall back on just using white background artists like the vast majority of shows.

I suppose my dilemma is that it seems as if the show and Ansari are advocating for Dev’s behaviour. There is always a very fine line when the showrunner and creator is also playing the main character in a series – where does reality end? Is Master of None subtly critiquing Dev’s behaviour? Or is it failing to recognise Dev’s manipulative tactics? It’s difficult to know, and for that reason it’s likely that we are supposed to side with Dev, which I just cannot get on board with. Master of None has succeeded in so many areas, but more work is clearly needed here.

 

 

ps:

Perhaps this is also a very personal gripe,but I also got slightly annoyed with the complete lack of understanding of Europe and Italy – supermarkets and Tinder are a thing in Europe guys! I know it’s a tiny thing but it’s just a reminder that either no-one has bothered to check, and that Americans think no-where else in the world is as ‘sophisticated’ as them. It’s just lazy.

 

 

Black Mirror: Season 3 Review

Watching the new series of Black Mirror in one weekend is one really effective way of leaving your psyche in tatters by Sunday evening. However, it is also something really worth doing, even though series three was a bit hit and miss. As a huge fan of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror since the days of pig-fucking bonanzas (and who knew how that would turn out eh!), I had been waiting patiently for series three to drop on Netflix, and then promptly devoured it over last weekend.

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The Box: What I’ve Been Binging Recently (#1)

It’s time to reflect on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season 2, Orange is the New Black Season 4 and Bojack Horseman Season 3. It’s also time to decide whether I watch too much television (or whether I have unhealthy obsession with Netflix). The answer is almost definitely yes to both.

 

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season 2

Kimmy Schmidt

I am well aware that the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt came out a few months ago, and for my own sake and dignity, I did watch it as soon as it came out. I have been meaning to write a post about it alone but you know… work/social life etc. Either way, it’s still very much worth discussing, even if it is a few months late.

After the incredible success of the first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, we always knew there would be a second season. What was unclear, however, was whether the series had any staying power. The first season was incredibly fresh and funny but many of the jokes relied on Kimmy’s lack of knowledge of the 21st century. With Kimmy getting more and more used to technology, iPhones and googling – would it still be as funny? The answer is a resounding yes. For as much as it is still funny that Kimmy fundamentally lacks understanding of the world today, the second season bought in whole new narratives. Whilst Kimmy was clearly the star of the first season, season two is almost an ensemble cast. We got to watch Lillian become the activist of her youth by protesting gentrification (“the neighbourhood always provides!”), Titus getting into a loving and committed relationship (with the builder who catcalled Kimmy in the first season) and we watch Jacqueline recover from her divorce and become a whole new person.

Both Jacqueline and Titus get more of a narrative arc this season and both characters go through situations that are new to them. Jacqueline breaks out of her rich and privileged lifestyle to become a far more rounded character – realising many things in the process. After her divorce she goes back to visit her parents (which is hysterical in itself, her attempts to live a rural life fall very flat) and eventually meets a man called Russ, back in New York. Russ is… not Jacqueline’s usual type, but Jacqueline comes to realise what it means to truly like someone for who they are, not the amount of money they have. She becomes a likeable and interesting character, but still with a few flaws – which actually makes her more relatable.

Whilst Kimmy retains its quick jokes and easy laughs, it also makes a point to talk about the important issues. Kimmy begins going to therapy in the second half of the season, after taking a job as an Uber driver and meeting Tina Fey’s therapist character, Andrea.  Although it is immediately apparent that Andrea needs help (she’s an alcoholic), it becomes clear that whilst Kimmy says that she is over her experiences in the bunker, she clearly isn’t. Andrea encourages Kimmy to wonder why it is that every time Titus or Jacqueline need her help, she goes running to their rescue. Kimmy has to face up to the fact that her life changed irreparably from her experience within the bunker and that she needs to learn to accept that.

The reunion between Kimmy and her mother (played by Lisa Kudrow, of course) in ‘Kimmy Finds Her Mom!’  is all sorts of sweet and sad. The rollercoaster ride serves as a metaphor for the rollercoaster ride that their relationship has been on. It turns out that, subconsciously Kimmy blames her mother for her abduction because Kimmy got held up tying her shoelaces – her mother had never taught her how to tie them properly. Kimmy’s mother, grief stricken, also left the family home after Kimmy’s abduction to join a travelling rollercoaster appreciation society (or something). Both women are dealing with their grief in separate ways and although the episode is as funny as we expect it to be, it’s also emotional. After screaming their heads off on the rollercoaster (a fantastic release of all the frustration both the women feel), Kimmy realises that being angry with her mum isn’t going to un-kidnap her. It’s a pretty valuable lesson.

Though this season brought to the surface many serious issues that Kimmy is facing, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s greatest accomplishment is it’s charming ability to be funny and sad at the same time. There’s a great many comedies that have sad and funny moments, but Kimmy manages to invoke both emotions in vast quantities at the very same time.

Orange is the New Black Season 4

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Where do I even begin with Season 4 of Orange is the New Black? Well, I suppose it would be wise to start at the beginning. I was apprehensive about the 4th season, mostly because season 3 ended on such a fantastically high note. The women of Litchfield Penitentiary had their moment of freedom, even if we knew it was going to come to an end. Watching their joy at simply being in the lake was wonderful and probably my favourite season finale I’ve ever seen. Of course, there is the small question of what is going to happen to Alex – but to be honest I’ve never really watched the show for Alex or Piper.

There’s so much to unpack this season. From allusions to police brutality, the black lives matter movement, to white supremacy, racial profiling and just how fundamentally flawed the prison system is – Orange is the New Black seemed to shift its focus from altercations amongst inmates to growing tensions between the inmates and the guards. There are still a fair few plots involving inmates (Piper and Maria’s feud being one of them) but in line with what is happening in the world today, the show seems to want to discuss the injustice of the (ironic) justice system in the US.

We spend time with Caputo, more than we have done previously, as he navigates around the new corporate world of prison funding (with his new gf Linda from Purchasing) whilst simultaneously dodging Sophia’s wife who is desperately trying to get Sofia out of SHU. Caputo is reluctant to do anything which might cost him the respect he has earnt from management, but seems to have enough of a conscience to actually pull through in the end. It doesn’t redeem him completely (and nor should it) and we see the Caputo, despite walking the walk and talking the talk, is actually kind of spineless.

The other newest additions in this series was the introduction of the ex-veteran guards, drafted in after the walkout of the prison guards at the end of the last season. Headed up by Piscatella, the new guards are brutish and come across as just evil. Ironically, despite the waves of violence and torture inflicted on the inmates quite deliberately by the guards, it is an accidental move by Bayley which results in the death of Poussey. It’s a bold move, to kill of such a beloved character and I am unsure exactly what the statement was that the writers were trying to make. It wasn’t the brutish, thuggish, power hungry guards who ended up killing a black inmate. Instead it was a young, naive guard – compliant in the violence against the inmates, but not a perpetrator. What are we saying here? That good guards make mistakes? That we should feel sorry for Bayley too? It just didn’t fly with me. It’s almost #notallguards, except yes all guards because all of them were incompetent at protecting the people they are being paid to be responsible for. That includes Caputo. 

Maybe it’s a comment on police brutality, maybe it’s a comment on the power structures that exist within the prison system. I appreciated the stance that the writers are trying to take on the Black Lives Matter movement and the racial profiling that goes on, inside and outside of the prison system. It’s just that – by painting the guards as wholly evil and not exploring the reasons why they behave in this way means that we can’t have a dialogue about it. The only reason given for the way in which the ex-vet guards behave towards the inmates (flies/baby mouse etc, table etc) is that they like to abuse their power because they are bad people. This is counter productive – we can’t examine the institutional racism, misogyny or power structures in society if we just brand everyone who propagates it as simply bad people. They are more, and less than that.

For example – Lolly and Healy’s ‘friendship’ allows us an insight into why Healy treats the women in the prison in the way that he does. speaking with Lolly, and finding out about his childhood with his mother, we realise that he isn’t a ‘bad guy’ – he’s just as fucked up as everyone else. This is what initially made OITNB a standout series. No-one is all good, or all bad.

Overall, I enjoyed season 4. I don’t think that OITNB has lost it’s touch quite yet and there’s still plenty more to explore. The revelation of Susanne’s crime was absolutely heartbreaking and watching Piper get branded was definitely one of the more satisfying moments in the entire series. Watch this space.

Bojack Horseman Season 3

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Oh Bojack. I can’t decide if I hate you or love you. As a character, that is – the show is still very firmly at the top of my ‘show’s I can’t live without’ list. The thing about Bojack Horseman, the character, is that he is equal parts relatable and equal parts repulsive. Which actually make him more relatable, because who among us are not repulsed (even slightly) by the thought of ourselves?

The third season follows Bojack’s futile attempts to reach Academy Awards status and gain a nomination for Secretariat. This is despite the fact that Bojack doesn’t actually appear in the film, rather they digitally reproduced his image through CGI. Ah Hollywoo – it’s just like the movies. Bojack’s publicist/friend with benefits, tries to secure the nomination for him and although the movie is well received, Bojack (inevitably) is not nominated for an Oscar. In his usual style of self sabotage, Bojack manages to destroy his friendship with Todd, destroy his friendship and working career with Princess Carolyn and at the end of the series he also manages to destroy the life of the young girl he tried to sleep with at the end of the third season.

There is one point where Princess Carolyn accuses Bojack of fetishizing his own sadness, and I think there is a really valid point in that. We know that Bojack is depressed, and that he lives in a vicious cycle of day to day self destruction because he can’t face up to his fears, his loneliness and ultimately his life. However, Bojack does wallow in his own self pity and becomes a truly dreadful person to his ‘friends’, yet excuses himself of these actions by blaming it on his depression (or his inability to feel anything).

This season we also got more of a much needed backstory for Princess Carolyn and her history with Bojack. From starting as an assistant, to building her own company – we understand Princess Carolyn’s frustrations at Bojack leaving her agency as she’ll certainly struggle to make ends meet with his star power. Princess Carolyn’s relationship to Bojack, his dependence on her is symptomatic of his relationships with almost everyone he is friends with. He is under the impression that all the people in his life are relying on him (Todd living on his sofa, Princess Carolyn for her agency, Diane for her book) but it is Bojack who left alone and friendless when he realises that he has pissed off anyone who ever cared about him. It turns out he was as dependent on them, if not more.

The standout episode of the series is clearly ‘Fish out of Water’ – an almost completely silent episode where Bojack visits the Pacific Ocean Film Festival, which is located… you guessed it. At the bottom of the ocean. Bojack doesn’t speak the language, and his speech is also muffled by the oxygen bowl around his head. He can’t smoke cigarettes, or even drink beer. He is completely out of his comfort zone, but more than that, he is isolated from the world around him. When he spots Kelsey Jannings at the festival, he tries all attempts to get a ‘sorry’ note across to her. When he finally thinks he has succeeded, she looks puzzled at him and throws the note back at him. The water has smudge the ink, and Bojack’s heartfelt message is gone.

Ironically, Bojack being in this unfamiliar situation actually means for once, he doesn’t fuck anything up like he usually does. Sure, the taffy factory is destroyed, but he returns the baby seahorse to it’s father and essentially saves the day. Instead of talking all the time or acting like a complete idiot because he is drunk, Bojack focuses on the task in hand and succeeds. It’s more than this though. Bojack has the time to evaluate himself, to realise how hard he finds it to connect to other people. The lack of communication, wanting to express feelings and opinions but not being able to, is brought to life in this episode.

On a quick final note, I also appreciated the taxi franchise which Todd and Mr Peanutbutter developed this season. As always, the show’s writers never hold back on politically charged discussions and this was no different. Tying the whole saga in with the orca-strippers was also some stellar narrative arc. Once again, Bojack Horseman does not disappoint on the social issues front.

 


So there you have it, the last couple of months in television! Let me know what you guys made of OITNB, Kimmy and Bojack this year – I am especially keen to hear what you thought of OITNB, it seemed to spark a lot of anger among fans. 

The Women of ‘Stranger Things’: Tired Tropes or Progressive Heroes?

Netflix’s new series Stranger Things is the hot topic of discussion this week. You’ve probably heard the comparisons – a mix of E.T./Stand By Me/Alien and with music by John Carpenter and/or Daft Punk, Stranger Things is so nostalgic that it feels as if you’ve been watching it your entire life. Which, in a way, we have.

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The Female Anti-Hero & White Male Privilege in Marvel’s Jessica Jones

This part-review-part-analysis of Netflix’s new original series Jessica Jones is going to sound very similar to many other reviews out there right now. It’s basically fucking amazing. Continue reading “The Female Anti-Hero & White Male Privilege in Marvel’s Jessica Jones”