Stranger Things

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Not literally all the TV, obviously. More accurately: most of the genre or genre-adjacent TV shows I’ve watched to the end in the last few months. That doesn’t make for a good blog title, though.

Brief reviews only, mild spoilers certainly possible but not guaranteed.

Star Trek : Discovery

Mad as a bag of squirrels. Don’t know quite what else to say, really. A bit like the reflection of something recognisably Star Trek seen in a heavily distorting mirror. Maybe half a dozen major plot twists get thrown at you – the kind of twists most series would probably settle for at most two or three per season. Honestly, I kind of like some of the twists, but not all of them. Two or three really good characters; several that are just OK; quite a few who are just blanks taking up screen space, really. Some really weird production decisions – nothing, from design to costuming to sub-plot to subtitles, about the Klingons works for me. Not one thing. Yet despite it all … I sort of enjoyed it. Sort of.

EDIT TO ADD: Since posting this, I had the misfortune to watch the last episode of ST : D’s first season. I did not like it. Not at all. If they’d all been like that, I would never have stuck with it through the season, I suspect. Ho hum. Fingers crossed for Season Two, I guess. More in hope than expectation. 

Godless

Netflix takes a swing at the Western, and for big chunks of the series I thought it was a home run. Beautiful to look at. Leisurely camerawork and pacing that often worked great for building tone and character. Some really nice scripting, delivered by some really good actors. But … it all got a bit too leisurely at some points. At least one, maybe two, episodes too many.

Still, I was fully on board until the last episode. At which point I was swept overboard by a tsunami of objections and reservations. I still give the whole thing a definite thumbs-up, but I could go on at nutty length about all the ways I disliked the final episode, and the degree to which it undid bits of the smart work done earlier in the series, but I’m committed to the ‘brief reviews only’ thing. So I’ll just say: what they did to Blackdom was, imho, horrifically misjudged; it sucks if you suddenly start relying entirely on coincidence and chance encounters to make your climax work; and the resolution of the various womens’ character arcs almost all left a slightly bitter taste in my mouth. Nuff said.

Punisher

Quite liked it. Just a fraction too violent for my taste on occasion – I’m turning into a big softie – but not enough to put me off. Probably goes in my top three (four?) of the Netflix Marvel shows, and at the very least is a return to some sort of form after the unfortunate misfires of Iron Fist and The Defenders.

Did leave me asking a profound question about TV dramas in general, though: What is it with the apparent inability of so many writers/actors/directors to even slightly conceal the fact that character X, who appears to be a goodie is in fact a villain? Is it deliberate or unintentional? I genuinely don’t know. Anyway, The Punisher contains the most screamingly obvious, borderline cliched, heel turn I’ve seen in … years, maybe. I mean, you know this guy – who’s superficially presented as a good guy for over half the series or so – is on the dark side from the moment he appears on screen. You’d have to have never watched any serialised drama in your life not to spot it, I’d have thought. Is it really that hard to conceal a character arc, or do the creators actively want the audience to know hours before any of the other characters figure it out?

Travelers

Have you watched Travelers? You should watch Travelers. I love Travelers. Fun take on time travel, with teams of future folks ‘possessing’ present day folks in an effort to avert future catastrophe. The genius of the show is in the casting, the acting and the focus on character and relationships alongside occasional outbursts of plot and action. I really can’t remember the last time I found an ensemble cast in a genre drama so engaging, both collectively and individually. Patrick Gilmore, in particular, is acting his pants off in this thing – seriously, I think he’s doing some of the most detailed, precise TV acting I’ve seen in a genre show.

I find myself rooting for every single one of the main seven or eight or whatever characters; and somehow – not sure how – the writing pulls off a spectacular balancing act of selling not only the characters’ total commitment to and support of each other, but also their over-riding and potentially sacrificial (of themselves and others) commitment to their mission. It’s clever TV-making, if you ask me. Slow, at least initially, if you’re expecting slam-bang sf action; but stick with it and it sucks you in. And tragically not yet confirmed as having been renewed for a third season, as far as I know …

The Good Place

Have you watched The Good Place? You should watch The Good Place. I love The Good Place. I mean, who takes a hi-concept, long form genre narrative and turns it into a half-hour network sitcom? And builds it around questions of moral philosophy in the afterlife? And makes it good? It’s not something you see every day. In terms of weird pushing of format boundaries it kind of reminds me of Community, though it’s a very different beast. The twist at the end of the first season is pretty legendary. The one at the end of the second season I’m not nearly so sure about, but the creators have shown they can handle wild shifts of narrative and setting, so I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. Plus: Ted Danson is cool.

Stranger Things

Specifically, season two of Stranger Things. This, for me, was a demonstration of the power of the first time. It was fine. I liked it. But it didn’t have the impact of the first season, simply – I think – because I knew exactly what I was getting going in. The powerful sense of place and time and tone that the first season smacked you in the face with was a little bit diminished this time around, I think, but at least in part that’s because it’s familiar the second time around. Also, too many new characters; not all of them slotting into the narrative as neatly as the whole crew from the first season did. Still, it’s a distinctive, fun bit of TV and the world would be just a tiny bit duller without it.

The Expanse

Also specifically, season two of The Expanse. I liked season one, but thought it was slightly heavy going here and there (and can vouch for the fact it was more than ‘slightly’ heavy going for at least one non-sf fan of my acquaintance). Season two, though – which I had to solo watch due to that heavy going thing – I thought was great. A blast, on the whole. Much more stream-lined and coherent and almost accessible. Don’t know exactly what their budget is, but I reckon on the whole they’ve got great value for money on their effects and sets. It looks good and it bounced along very nicely and nimbly. Sign me up for season three.

But … I have one over-arching complaint that applies to The Expanse and at least a couple others of these series, which might be going to sound picky but really bugs me:

Basic Military Tactics, People! It’s Not Rocket Science!

Now and again in The Expanse, pretty much continuously in Star Trek : Discovery, in the final episode of Godless, and even in Stranger Things, people who are supposed to be either trained or in some way experienced and even expert in the art of combat – firearm combat of one sort or another specifically – behave during firefights like people who don’t even know which end of a gun is the dangerous one. The most basic notions of deployment, cover, tactical movement, etc etc sometimes appear to be completely unknown to soldiers who are supposed to be elites.

I mean anyone who’s played a few hours of video games could get the better of some of the supposedly fearsome warriors on display in these series. If you’re trying to sell the audience on the idea that these people are dangerous, militarily awesome or whatever, just make them act like they have a rough idea of what they’re doing. That’s all I ask.

Cover, people! It’s right there! I can see it, just a few paces to the side of you! Don’t just stand there blasting away, for … oh, never mind.

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