Category Archives: television

What I’ve Been Watching: House of Cards

HouseOfCards

It’s not often you can say a television series is ground-breaking almost as soon as it’s been released and be right. However, I’m fairly confident Netflix’s House of Cards matches that description and will be written about in years to come as the moment something changed in the television industry.

In some ways the lack of fuss about its well-deserved Emmy nominations highlights this. No one has seriously questioned its right to be there despite never having a timeslot on an American tv channel.

House of Cards is an american remake of a british television series. Attempts to remake british series have been notoriously unsuccessful in the past apart from the notable exception of The Office. However with big names both in front of the camera (Kevin Spacey) and behind it (David Fincher), House of Cards it looked like the series was in pretty safe hands.

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Podcast – Mr Freeze: The Great and Punnable

OzBannerPoster

On this month’s podcast we review Oz The Great and Powerful, our “Best Worst Movie” is the oh-so-colourful Batman and Robin, and we take a look ahead to what we’re looking forward to over the coming months.

Listen to find out if Mark can mention all of Sam Raimi’s back catalogue; Dave can tell the difference between “Wonderland” and “Oz”; and whether Laura can find a way to get Steve back from the land of Oz;

Or if you want to save it for a rainy day, you can also download it if you Right click the link below and go to Save As:

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/8634900/ObserveALot201303.mp3

You can contact the podcast at observealot(at)gmail(dot)com

Bonus Features:
Mr Freeze’s Best Lines from Batman and Robin

What I’ve Been Watching: The Walking Dead – Episode 1

Article first published as TV Review: The Walking Dead – “Days Gone By” on Blogcritics.

The walking dead tv posterSunday night saw the premiere of The Walking Dead on Channel Five. Written and directed by Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), it tells the story of a group of people trying to survive a zombie apocalypse.

The show is based on a series of comics written by Robert Kirkman. He came up with the concept after seeing a lot of zombie movies and wondering: “What the future would hold for the survivors after the credits rolled?” Since the zombies would now be an ever-present part of society, what impact would this have on people in the long-term?

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What I’ve Been Watching: Pushing Daisies Season 2

pushing-daisies-complete-season-2-dvd-2008-14146540.jpegPushing Daisies’ second season was also its last. The show’s unequivocal commitment to its voice, style and narrative was both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. Like films such as Amelie, The Brothers Bloom or The Royal Tenenbaums, its whimsical style seems to have both excited and marginalised television viewers in equal measure.

Essentially the best way to know if you will like this show or not, is to watch one episode. If its tone and hyper-real world appeals to you, you’ll want to watch the rest of the series. If not, you’ll know to give it a wide berth.

For those of you who have never seen Pushing Daisies, the facts are these: Ned, a piemaker, can raise the dead. If he touches a dead thing it comes back to life. If he touches it again it dies. If he lets the dead thing stay alive for more than one minute, someone else must die. When he finds out his childhood sweetheart Chuck dies, he raises her again, and allows her to live. They are very much in love, but can never touch otherwise she will die.

Season two is a welcome development of the groundwork laid down in the show’s first season. It feels like a show much more aware of its own strengths. In particular, Olive Stone and Emerson Cod, who up until the start of season one had very much supporting roles, are wisely given their own back stories, as well as much more screen time. This allows the narrative to move from the love story between Ned and Chuck to a much more ensemble piece.

It also makes much better use of its “Mystery of the Week”. Like Joss Whedon’s shows: Buffy, Angel and Dollhouse, which all started out with this format, Pushing Daisies manages to seamlessly weave its characters’ season-long arcs with whatever case has to be solved that week. This means mysteries in the second season have much more resonance to them. As the characters we know and love have more invested in the cases, we as viewers naturally become more invested.

Finally, there’s a purity of emotion and character to Pushing Daisies that mark it apart from most shows I love. Characters never really change that much, even if their circumstances do. Olive still loves Ned; Ned and Chuck love each other; Emerson Cod remains cynical and distant. Normally I would hate this type of storytelling. However, such is the perfectly judged tone of the show, that I found these never-changing character traits incredibly endearing and refreshing.

Perhaps it’s because in between the cynicism and depression of shows like The Wire, Mad Men and The Pacific, it’s nice to have something so devoted to its own cheery disposition.

During the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, I remember seeing a poster for Tim Vine, where one reviewer said: “You wouldn’t want every comedian to be Tim Vine but it’s good to know one is.” Perhaps this best sums up my feelings about Bryan Fuller’s show: I wouldn’t want every show to be Pushing Daisies, but it’s good to know one is.

Top Five Television Seasons of 2010

Unlike my Top Five Films of 2010, choosing my Top Five Television Seasons of 2010 requires me to put a fairly large disclaimer in place. Basically, every season on the list I have seen this year, but may first been aired in 2009 (or even 2008).

This represents the fact that with one exception, I watched all of these on DVD. I think this reflects a shift in the way many tv fans viewing habits have changed over the past decade. It means this list may not entirely representative of television in 2010. However, at the very least it reflects the way I, and many others, have experienced television this year.

MadMen_S3_DVD.jpg5. Mad Men – Season 3

One of the great things about Mad Men has been the way it effortlessly intertwines the real-life events of the 1960s into the lives of its characters.

The highlight of season 3 for me was seeing how the show’s characters responded to the Kennedy assassination. In seeing something so shocking and tragic, they are forced to take stock of their own lives and what’s important to them.

Of course, while their responses may be life-changing and somewhat drastic, the genius of the show comes from the previous six or seven episodes that allow these big things to happen. Mad Men is a show never afraid to take its time, a show which allows its plot to flow effortlessly from the development of its characters.

pacific_ver3.jpg4. The Pacific

While not quite reaching the heights of Band of Brothers, which remains the greatest mini-series ever made, The Pacific was nevertheless a welcome return to the themes and setting of Spielberg’s original series.

The choice to focus on just three men, as oppose to many, took a while to get used to. Once I did, however, it transported me into a war I wanted to escape from immediately.

In the UK, not as much attention is paid to the Pacific Front of the Second World War. Therefore, it was good to get an appreciation of the atrocious conditions the allied soldiers had to endure in their fight for freedom.

The nature of the war allowed Spielberg to take up themes we normally associate with films about Vietnam. How war changes men in different ways, and stays with them and their loved ones for the rest of their lives.

Like Band of Brothers it paints with so many strokes that as soon as you watch it, you feel you need to watch it again to catch everything you missed. Simply great, ambitious, cinematic television.

doctor-who-season5-blu-ray-cover.jpg3. Doctor Who – Season 5

Some people thought Matt Smith had no hope of ever reaching the heights of Tennant’s Doctor. However, within minutes of eating custard and fish fingers it was obvious Smith had his own equally charming take on this age-old character.

Credit must also be given to Moffat, who has allowed the series to move in a new and interesting direction since taking over as show-runner from Russell T. Davies. A direction more concerned with the mythology of the Whoverse.

Perhaps this is best represented by the recurring appearances of River Song. She has given the show an added dimension with hints at future events, and insights into the Doctor’s character not even he knows.

Finally, Amy Pond as the new assistant, struck the right balance between wonderment, vulnerability, and sauciness. The opening episode of the season gave us by far the most ambitious and unique introduction to an assistant yet; brilliantly picking up the existing themes of how people are both helped and left helpless by meeting The Doctor.

Despite this season’s changes, Doctor Who remains the most exciting and creative show on British television. Long may it continue.

Breaking-Bad-Online1.jpg2. Breaking Bad – Season 1

I debated whether to put this on the list at all, since season one was first aired in 2008, and has been available in the UK since 2009. However, 2010 was the year I discovered Breaking Bad, and it’s a series I hope many more people in the UK discover in 2011.

Breaking Bad takes the drug-dealing of The Wire and mixes it in with the family life of something like Friday Night Lights. Its main character, Walt, is a chemistry teacher with cancer. Only he can’t afford the treatment. (Damn American Health System!)

After being accidentally introduced to the kind of money crystal meth dealers make via his brother-in-law, a cop, he decides to go into business with a small-time dealer, Jesse. Walt uses his chemistry know-how to make the drugs; Jesse, his contacts to sell it.

All of which sounds like the set-up for an outrageous comedy. Yet there’s so much more to Breaking Bad than the funny that naturally comes from the odd couple at its heart.

The genius of Breaking Bad is the way it combines the dark comedic elements with its incredibly touching familial moments. The way each member of Walt’s family deals with his diagnosis giving the show the kind of reality and truth so few television shows ever achieve.

It’s my belief that as more and more people watch Breaking Bad, it’ll be mentioned in the same breath as The Wire and Mad Men. In other words, television you simply must see.

displayimage.php.jpeg1. Friday Night Lights – Season 4

A show few in the States have seen, and even fewer in the UK. For a British viewer to watch it, one must own a multi-region DVD player and import the DVD boxsets from America. The fact I am willing to do this every year should be testament enough to the quality of the show.

I’ve already said a lot about this show. However, its simple appeal comes from the fact that watching it feels like spending time with old friends.

Whether its Matt Saracen, Tim Riggins or Tami Taylor, there’s a pure unadulterated joy in spending time with these characters that no other show has ever given me.

It’s recently been announced that Season 5 will be its last. However, no matter how it ends, I’ll still be thinking about how the lives of these characters are going; what they’re doing; and who they’re with. If that sounds like a sad and pathetic thing to do, then I know you’ve yet to watch one of the greatest television series ever made.

As a quick epilogue to the Top Five TV Seasons of 2010, here are my Top Three Most Anticipated New Series of 2011. And by ‘new’, you can assume I mean ‘available on DVD in 2011 in the UK’:

3. Boardwalk Empire
Scorsese does The Sopranos in the prohibition era.

2. The Walking Dead
A serialised zombie apocolyspe show from Frank Darabont.

1. Treme
From the makers of The Wire.

What I’ve Been Watching: The State Within versus State of Play

I recently finished The State Within. It’s a political thriller told over six episodes. It also stars an ensemble cast, and has twists and turns a plenty.

It reminded me a lot of State of Play. Like The State Within, it’s a political thriller told over six episodes. It also stars an ensemble cast, and has plenty of twists and turns.

Despite their similarities, I felt State of Play was far far superior to The State Within. I thought I’d review them both and try and figure out why two shows with such a lot in common gave me such differing experiences.

State of Play

state-of-play-poster.jpgState of Play is tale of a journalist, Cal, and his best friend Stephen, an MP. After Stephen’s research assistant mysteriously falls to her death, revelations come out about their affair. Stephen thinks he’s been set up and asks Cal to find out the truth about his lover’s death. However, friendships become strained after Cal discovers more than he bargained for.

State of Play is one of my favourite mini-series of the past ten years. It effortlessly combines thrills, likeable characters, and engaging, believable relationships.

It exists very much in the same vein as All The President’s Men. A modern love letter to investigative journalism (apparently a dying art).

In particular, the team of journalists led by Cal (John Simm), and featuring James McAvoy, Bill Nighy, and Kelly MacDonald is brilliantly cast and always exciting to watch.

The best ‘teams’ on television are the one’s you wish you were part of. Shows like Serenity, The West Wing, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are successful not just because of the individual characters, but because of the relationships these characters have. Relationships we would love to have in our own lives.

State of Play realises this, and it means as the plot makes it twists and turns we care about the individuals involved. This gives the final act a lot more weight than one off series of similar length.

The State Within

the_state_within_dvd__large_.jpgGiven the similarities with State of Play, I was fairly excited to watch The State Within. However, the show was a lot less enjoyable and engaging. It’s interesting to consider why this might be the case.

It stars Jason Isaacs as the British Ambassador to America. He has to deal with the fallout of a terrorist attack by a British Muslim on American soil. Meanwhile there’s a British citizen about to given the death sentence for a crime he apparently didn’t commit. Can the embassy prevent an innocent man being killed?

From there The State Within follows much the same formula as most conspiracy thrillers. Shady corporations, devious government officials, characters with split loyalties.

What it forgets to do is create characters with much depth or are even that enjoyable to be with. The ‘team’ at the British Embassy is so fragmented and self-serving that it’s difficult to root for anyone other than its two main leads.

In addition, The State Within takes itself very seriously, which is understandable given its subject matter. Nevertheless dramas like The West Wing have shown how to deal with serious issues in a very entertaining manner.

It feels like the writers’ were trying to hard to say something about the War on Terror that they forgot to create characters that were anything more than cogs around which the story turned.

After watching State of Play, I found myself wondering what happened to the characters after all the revelations and events of the six episodes. The State Within gave me no such feeling.

The State Within is a well-written, intelligent and well-acted drama. It’s just that in choosing to tackle the issues of our time at the expense of creating interesting, well-rounded characters I find it difficult to recommend.

What I’ve Been Watching: Television – Friday Night Lights Season 4

Before I review the fourth season of Friday Night Lights, I’m going to do a mini-review of the series thus far, since it’s a show few have heard about, but which has received almost universal praise from those critics and fans who have.

Roughly speaking, it’s a teen drama about an American football team in the small town of Dillon, Texas. However, it’s got about as much in common with a show like The O.C. as The Wire does with C.S.I., or The Office with Fawlty Towers.

It’s filmed with multiple, as oppose to single, cameras at once. This gives it a documentary-style feel, and was chosen to give actors a bit more freedom to ad-lib lines and movement as and when they see fit.

The show also goes to great lengths to create real, three-dimensional characters. It’s difficult to think of another series, or in fact any other story where I was so connected to the central characters. The best way to describe the experience of watching the show is like catching up with old friends.

(From now on there’s Spoilers for Seasons 1 to 3 of the show – you have been warned!)

displayimage.php.jpegSeason 4 then. The transition for season 3 to 4 saw possibly the biggest change to the show thus far. Coach Taylor was fired from the Dillon Panthers, and asked to take over the as yet non-existent East Dillon Lions.

Not only that, but with almost all of the original teen cast graduated from High School, the show needed to find a new younger generation to fill in the gap left by the exit of The Smash, Jason Street, Tyra and Lyla in the previous season.

Step forward Luke, Jess, Becky, and Vince (Wallace from The Wire). Their introduction to the series is a masterclass in how to introduce a whole new set of cast members, while retaining the spirit and feel of the series.

The writers’ wisely choosing to concentrate mainly on established characters at the start of the season, and then gradually giving the new cast more screen time in future episodes.

Fans of The Wire’s Season 4 will no doubt identify with Vince’s arc this season. As he, much like the four boys in the HBO show, has to deal with a drug-dependent mother and staying on the right side of the law to avoid going to juvenile prison. Like all things on Friday Night Lights, it’s handled expertly: with the right mix of realism but hopefulness at the same time.

Two of the (now graduated) characters who did remain were Matt Saracen and Tim Riggins. For me, these two characters provided the highlights of the season.

There’s an episode centring on Matt Saracen about half way through the season that is, in my opinion, the strongest single episode the show has ever done, and had me crying like a little baby on more than one occasion.

The development of Riggins’ character through out the season was equally well-handled. I was somewhat sceptical upon seeing him ‘return’ to the show, after his apparent exit at the end of season 3. However, the way his arc was handled more than justified it. The place he finishes at by the end of this season, a far cry from the Riggins we saw way back at the show’s beginning four years ago.

Friday Night Lights’ Fourth Season continues to be as engaging and well-realised as ever. Despite almost half its cast changing it still feels very much like the same show we’ve all come to know and love over the past few years. It’s a great credit to the show’s creators that they’ve managed to continue the brilliance and quality of its previous three years.