2017 minus 39: It’s “what I’m watching” wednesday (Part 2)

Posted: 23 November 2016 in 2017 minus

Well, this seemed to go down ok last week (Part 1 here), so let’s do another one. As I said last time, while I occasionally mention “tv shows I don’t like that everyone else does” I rarely tell you what I do enjoy watching. 

So, continuing in no particular order, what tv am I enjoying right now?

Full Frontal With Samantha Bee
One of the best pieces of news this week was that this show has been renewed for a second season. When she left The Daily Show, I was disappointed for two reasons. One was that I had hoped that she would get The Daily Show gig when Jon Stewart left, but the other was that I was genuinely worried we’d lose her take on things,  that she might do a sitcom or something. While I stand behind no-one in my admiration for what John Oliver has done with Last Week Tonight, it’s very much not a continuation of The Daily Show. What Sam Bee has done with Full Frontal is as close to a continuation of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart as possible, something much needed since The Daily Show stopped being The Daily Show.

For all that Trevor Noah has done with The Daily Show, it’s nowhere near as sharp, as clever nor as funny as it once was. Some of that is down to the host, some of it down to the deliberate change of style. Sam Bee on the other hand, with her writers, has taken that edge, and sharpened it and sharpened it, and then sharpened it some more, until it’s like unto stiletto. There’s no other show on right now that delivers so many hard-edged gags, so many punches to the gut as Full Frontal. From the very first line, which is invariably a good one, until the last line of the show, there’s no let up. It’s edgy, it’s funny, it’s clever (my heavens, it’s clever) and there’s no let up. This is late night comedy at its very, very best. 

(On a personal note, I was delighted to see – among the newer folks she’s got involved – Amy Hoggart. She’s the daughter of a journalist I much admired, and was fortunate enough to meet, the late Simon Hoggart. She’d be very proud of her.)

I remember seeing the Westworld movie when I was a teenager. It was a fun romp, but no better nor worse than a dozen different movies at the time. The biggest thrill for me was seeing Yul Brynner involved in it, as I greatly admired his work. Heh. “Greatly admired.” Yeah, that’s a fifty-two year old man writing that. At the time, I was just a huge fan and would watch anything he was in. When they announced the reboot, I saw the first couple of trailers and, I dunno. They didn’t do it for me. Then they released one that, oh my heavens, it did it for me. And then some. I have no idea what changed, but once it had, then I rewatched the earlier trailers and saw what everyone else had seen but that I’d missed: this was clever, clever stuff. I’m not going to give an yspoilers in these reviews, but I think it’s fair to say that from the end of the first episode, and particularly from every episode thereafter, this show rewards rewatching, to see what clues, both visual and via dialogue, you missed first time around. I’ve got my own theories and I’m equally delighted when one of them proves to have been correct as I am when my theory’s wrong… because I got fooled by something. I never get angry at being fooled by clever writing. I get angry when comics and novels and tv shows lie to me, tell me flat out X isn’t true and then turns out X is true. But Westworld doesn’t do that. It allows you to draw your own conclusions, offers you clues to what’s going on, and then lets you decide which are the important clues and which were throwaway lines.

Except, as you discover, there are no throwaway lines. Every line, every scene is important. Damn, this is a good show. Every performance is superb, but two stand out. Both Anthony Hopkins and Thandie Newton are doing the best work of their career. Yes, I think Hopkin’s performance in Westworld is better than that as Hannibal Lecter*, and in Magic, my previous two favourite works of his. (*To be honest, I always preferred Brian Cox’s performance in Manhunter although the character’s name was changed for some reason to Lektor.)

The Blacklist
Talking of best ever performances, James Spader in The Blacklist is, and has been for the past four and half seasons, playing the role of his life. While I loved him as a younger actor both in Stargate and The Watcher, his performance as the concierge of crime James ‘Red’ Reddington is stunning. While the trailer for this show did – as tends to be the habit now – give away the entire plot of the pilot, there was something there that told you this was a show you needed to watch. I think it’s the moment when one character asks “Am I supposed to trust you?” and Spader’s character laughs in delight and replies “Of course not, I’m a criminal.”  It’s probably the best trailer for a show I’ve seen.

Of course, Spader’s not the only character. As well as the regulars, all of whom are far deeper than they at first appear, you get recurring characters, most of whom appear to be written so to allow the actors to have some fun. Everyone guesting on the show, whether  they’re recurring or one offs, seem to be having this most fun ever. That’s hugely enjoyable to watch. The show did make the mistake of making most of the rest cardboard cutouts for the first few episodes, stereotypes; once they moved on from that, the characters never stopped developing, the sign of a good show. The format of the show allows guest stars and there’s never been a bad performance by the ‘bad guy of the week’. Although the ‘season storylines’ have varied in quality, they’ve never been worse than ‘good’ and sometimes they’re excellent. The Blacklist shows also how damaged everyone is; there’s no one on the show who pretends not to be, which is novel, and fun to watch. It’s always fun rooting for the bad guy and you do that constantly on this show, even if you don’t always know who is the bad guy, and who are supposedly the good guys.

How To Get Away With Murder
When I was training as an auditor, I was taught how to commit fraud, because as an auditor, you have to know how to spot it. This show started with the same premise: a law professor teaching students criminal defence, effectively How To Get Away With Murder. Of course, of course, the professor and the students take it from theory to practice. This is an odd one because I’m never that eager to watch the show; I seem to watch it more out of habit than genuine desire but every episode, every damn episode, hooks me again when I watch it. There’s so much going on that I have to pay attention while watching, and I like that about a show. 

The cast have all, at various times, as the storyline has concentrated on them, acted their socks off, but the writers tend to pretty much phone it in for them when the storyline isn’t about them. That’s probably unfair, though. The only character who hasn’t essentially changed hugely from the first episode is the main character, about who we learn virtually nothing that doesn’t reinforce what we always and already thought about her. It’s astonshingly difficult for an actor to do that and still make the character interesting, but Viloa Davis does it. Everyone else changes throughout the show, and often, usually, it’s because of their interactions with, and reactions to, the aforementioned main character. It’s a clever trick to pull off, and the writers usually accomplish it. Season two had a dip in quality, but the third season’s hook, and the slow reveal, has slammed the quality way back up there.

I’m less convinced with this show that it could survive the loss of more than one of the main cast though; should any of them wish to leave at some point, it’d probably be better to wind the show up. But until, then, I’ll start watching each episode out of habit and end each episode desperately wanting more.

Designated Survivor
Any student of American politics, anyone who watched The West Wing, even one who lives overseas, knows about the ‘designated survivor’. When the President gives the State of the Union address, one cabinet member is secreted away just in case. Just in case of what? Well, just in case everyone else gets blowed up, or is killed or… whatever, it doesn’t matter. It’s there just in case. 

Well, ‘just in case’ just happened. At least in this show. The capitol is destroyed, wiping out the President, the VP, the cabinet, almost all of congress and the Supreme Court. And the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development – who’d been asked to resign that morning, of course – suddenly finds himself President. Great hook for a tv movie, I wasn’t convinced of the idea for a show. But you know what? I love this show. The writing and dialogue are great, the acting is fun to watch, even if a couple of the characters love chewing the scenery and mighth as well carry placards around with “Hey, I’m the bad guy” on them. Kiefer Sutherland doesn’t quite lose the ‘Jack Bauer’ attitude, but it’s only switched on very, very rarely and it’s mostly believable when he does. 

It’s also fun to see Kal Penn having a blast playing the speechwriter-turned-press secretary. What’s interesting to me is the understory, intended or not, that 99% of the time, governing is boring, mundane, just ‘getting the job done’. That was more obvious in the first two episodes when it was clear that Sutherland’s character regarded HUD secretary as ‘another job’, one that could help people if odne diligently but just another job. Governing is important but boring in the main. It’s the 1% we see in drama that’s the novelty and intended or not, it’s a lesson that America is discovering for itself right now in real life as well.

OK, so that’s another few shows I like. Some more next Wednesday. But something to add before I finish: as well as the shows I enjoy, here’s a show I tried, but gave up on.

First up: Timeless
I should have loved this show. Time travel is something I love watching, and as long as it’s done even semi-cometently, I’ll watch it. But Timeless is just bad. The plot makes no sense – although yes, when you’re plaing with time travel, there’s aways the chance that’s deliberate. The acting, with the occasional exception, is… meh. Patterson Joseph’s scenes are always fun to watch and I’d quite happily watch what he’s doing while ‘the team is on a mission’ than watching ‘the team on a mission’. I gave it four episodes before giving up on this show. None of the lead characters are convincing in their roles, and I constantly get the feeling they’re nottravelling in time but travelling to re-enactments of the events they witness. Yes, there’s the genuinely clever hook of their own lives being affected by their actions in the past (one character’s sister is wiped from existence) but that’s about it. I’m mildly curious about what happens to them. but no more than that.

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to 1st January 2017. You can see other posts in the run by clicking here.


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