It’s a Sin

Spoiler Note:

I haven’t included any spoilers of plot points in the below, the following is just an overview and my feelings with regards to the show.  However, if you’d prefer to come into this show with few expectations then please avoid reading until after you’ve seen it all.

Links to information on HIV/AIDS

One of the most widely anticipated shows of late, with a lot of hype months prior to its airing comes ‘It’s a Sin’ by Russell T. Davies.  As such, there is a huge weight of expectation and Russell must have felt an enormous amount of responsibility in relating a period of recent British history that hasn’t previously been told in any significant way.  Many depictions of the AIDS crisis have been told from the American perspective with ‘Angels in America’, ‘Philadelphia’, ‘The Normal Heart’, ‘Longtime Companion’, ‘Pedro’ etc. but not of what it was like in the UK.  Additionally, the UK had its own ignominious element with the government legislation, Section 28, that added another layer of discrimination to an already marginalised group then having to cope with the trauma of what became to be known as ‘The Gay Plague’.

I have to admit, there were elements of the first episode I didn’t like, some parts of it felt wrong to me – but having now seen it all, I know that I came to this with some of my own baggage.  I was a bit afraid of watching it, afraid of how it would make me feel and afraid of what memories and feelings it would evoke.  That’s why good drama is good, it challenges you and moves you and boy does this move you. I grew up during the time the show is set and I’m just about the generation behind it so I was a teenager at school when it happened; coming to terms with being gay and then having this splashed across every part of the media, was pretty challenging. 

The show is largely set in London and takes place over a decade, 1981 to 1991, and it feels a very different show at the beginning than how it does at the end, almost unbearably so as the weight of it all gradually builds up and bears down.  The story follows a group of friends who find each other at university and in the gay scene; it’s then on these young people to navigate safely through society and those around them whilst also being young and everything that entails, and then in late 1981 along comes HIV/AIDS. None of the gay characters are out to their parents or in their subsequent workplaces as this was a time when it was not uncommon to be ostracised by your family and (legally) dismissed by your employer. In the absence of family support, they create their own family filled with friends.

I would say the closest this comes, if I were to make a comparison, is to Larry Kramer’s ‘The Normal Heart’ though ‘It’s a Sin’ isn’t quite as political (understandable given that ‘The Normal Heart’ is about a Larry Kramer character).  One character, Jill, becomes an early advocate for HIV awareness, there’s mention of Section 28 and Thatcher and also a demonstration later on (that’s shown in the trailer) but more than that this is a deeply personal story that depicts how it was for many in the LGBTQ+ community living in London during this time.  Even though I’m fairly well educated on this subject, I found some of the elements depicting how people were treated very shocking; the widespread, institutional, lack of humanity, borne out of fear and ignorance is awful to see in practice. A few early scenes in both ‘Heart’ and ‘Sin’, portray the treatment of early patients in hospital, it’s unspeakably tragic.

Another unique part of history that this show depicts is the trauma faced by the LGBTQ+ community during this time.  In no other modern period of peacetime was it ever normal for people in their 20’s to attend (or as was also not uncommon, to be excluded from) the funerals of so many of their close friends and lovers. Without doubt, this has left a permanent mark on the entire generation that lived through it. The current pandemic will undoubtedly leave a huge impact on our society for decades to come, but the difference is that we’re all in this together. The LGBTQ+ community was ignored and left to deal with it themselves for years before anyone in government even mentioned it.

In film and television, very often gay characters, especially lead characters in LGTBQ+ stories are been played by non-LGBTQ+ actors.  As with ‘Uncle Frank’, for example, and I don’t often have a problem with that decision if I take each film as a separate entity.  However, with the casting of ‘It’s a Sin’ being exclusively that of gay actors playing gay roles, I can see that this proactive decision provides a palpable and undeniable authenticity. It does seem that the ideal situation on every level is to attain that level of authenticity.

The casting choices work not just on that level but also in the blend of new and established actors with many of the lead characters being played by new actors; Callum Scott-Howells as Colin (in many ways I felt a very close affinity to Colin), Nathaniel Curtis as Ash and Omari Douglas as Roscoe.  Olly Alexander, of ‘Years and Years’ has also not done a lot of acting before this, but you wouldn’t know it, it’s a flawless, defiant, tough, confident, heart-breaking performance.

The established actors, Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Fry, Tracy Ann Oberman, Keeley Hawes and Shaun Dooley are all perfect and there isn’t a hint of them overplaying what they’re given.  It feels like a democratic, ensemble piece with zero ego. Keeley Hawes had arguably the most difficult, complex, emotionally charged character to portray, that of Ritchie’s Mum, to say more could spoil it, so I’ll leave it there…

Perhaps, the standout is Lydia West as Jill, a character inspired by a friend of Russell T. Davies’.  Jill carries the emotional weight of the story that never seems to be too much for her to bear.  She’s confident and loving from the very first episode then as time progresses, she finds a life and purpose that she wasn’t looking for but to which her natural kindness and empathy makes her perfectly suited; fighting for and caring for others.

Given the expectation of this show and what it would mean for so many that lived through this period, the responsibility is borne exceptionally. This is a seminal work that will be talked about by many and also studied by students of LGBTQ+ history for years to come.

Further Information

NetworkChannel 4 / HBO Max
CastOlly Alexander, as Ritchie Tozer
Lydia West, as Jill Baxter
Nathaniel Curtis, as Ash Mukherjee
Omari Douglas, as Roscoe Babatunde
Callum Scott Howells, as Colin Morris-Jones
SeasonLimited Series (2021): 5 episodes

Tales from the Loop

Possibly the most under-rated drama of the past few years, this is one of the most beautifully thoughtful series I’ve seen in a very long time; the kind of show that stays with you for a very long time after watching.

Set in the fictional town of Mercer, Ohio in the Midwest United States, the Loop is a facility at its very heart, like a town near a coal mine or a car manufacturer, everyone has some kind of relationship with it.  It’s never really clear what the Loop is but its work is connected to the large, rusting, metal monolithic objects of unknown origin that are scattered randomly around the town’s outskirts.  It may sound a bit ambiguous and there’s some suspension of disbelief required, as with most science fiction, but the objects are there to move the story forward rather than be the focus of it, as Hitchcockian McGuffins.

One of the joys with this series is the use of sci-fi to forward the story, sometimes you’re not entirely sure what’s going on and then the realisation slowly dawns as to what’s happening and what’s caused it.  It’s then that the humanity fleshes out the story and the consequences become real and relatable.  They use science fiction as a backdrop to some fundamentally human stories that question everything about who we are and how we deal with the world around us.

It can be too slow for some people, especially if you’re into fast-paced Marvel-type shows, which I am as well but I love the slow-burners too.  I fondly remember watching ‘Paris, Texas’ as a student and old documentaries like ‘Nanook of the North’ when I did my Film Studies degree (Loop isn’t quite THAT slow).   I fear that those people who did give this a try, gave up after the first episode.  You could be forgiven for thinking the episodes are entirely separate tales but there are connections that weave delicately through from the first, through each episode, to the very end.  It’s an almost magical first episode but taken as a standalone, I can see that people might not want to continue for possibly more of the same.

The casting is very carefully constructed to suit the themes and environment, with the skills of the actors creating a beautiful array of relatable characters.  Jonathan Pryce plays Russ, the founder of the Loop and so he is not only at the heart of the facility but the character from who all the other characters branch out from.  Jonathan is a wonderful actor who I always look forward to seeing (will be interesting to see him play Prince Philip in ‘The Crown’!).   Aside from him, I’d seen Jane Alexander in ‘The Good Wife’ and the brilliant ‘Modern Love’; Paul Schneider as Mark in ‘Parks & Rec’; Tyler Barnhardt as Charlie in ’13 Reasons Why’; Lauren Weedman as Doris in the incredibly good ‘Looking’.

As an ensemble, they work flawlessly, and the younger actors especially give exceptional performances and thrive at those times when the story rests solely upon their shoulders.  The main stand-out performance for me, was Ato Essandoh, as Gaddis.  Not wanting to reveal too much of the plot, but as with other characters we see short glimpses of him in episodes before getting to the one that centres on him.  I felt that as an actor, he had the most difficult of roles to portray in terms of its diversity and complexity.

The series is inspired by the work of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag and the production team have done a magnificent job in bringing his art to life; looking at the art is like looking at stills from the series. Simon has produced two further works following from this ‘Things from the Flood’ and ‘The Electric State’; I sincerely hope that Amazon commission these two for further series.

A further element to this series is the beautiful score by Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan.  As is usual for Glass, this is wonderfully minimalistic and adds an almost meditative, somnambulistic, other-worldly feeling.  At times, it soars as if to reach into the very heart of you to heighten the emotion of the story, at others, it sits there, as it should, and holds our collective hand as we watch.

As an aside, if you’re working from home, for whatever reason, you can do worse than to put the soundtrack on in the background to help you concentrate.  I’ve found it an invaluable addition to my new working life:

If you take anything away from this is, give it a go! And if you gave it a go and fell at the first hurdle, give it another go!

NetworkAmazon Prime Video
CastDaniel Zolghadri, as Jakob
Rebecca Hall, as Loretta
Paul Schneider, as George
Ato Essandoh, as Gaddis
Duncan Joiner, as Cole
Jonathan Pryce, as Russ
SeasonS1 (2020): 8 episodes

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

This show has heart, a whole big load of it and something we really need right now is a show about empathy, in a big, overblown, musical number kind of way.

Zoey Clarke is a programmer for a tech-firm in San Francisco.  Her father is very ill and she’s concerned it may be inherited so to set her mind at ease goes for an MRI.  She’s nervous so the technician gives her some music to listen to but as soon as she’s in the machine, the city has one of its infamous minor quakes.  One improbable plot device later and Zoey gains the power of ultra-empathy as the innermost thoughts of people around her are performed to her as song and dance numbers.  At first, it’s anyone she comes across but later on it, thankfully, gets more focussed on her nearest and dearest.

The obvious comparison is to ‘Glee’ but it’s got a bit of an ‘Ugly Betty’ in there with the melodrama toned down somewhat.  It’s big on the feel-good factor and I’ve shed more than a few tears at some of the lovely, touching moments.

The message of this show is that you never know what someone else is going through.  You see what they want you to see, or what you choose to see.  People have problems they can’t express because they’re held back by shame or pride and it just takes one person to ask them how they’re feeling to make a difference.

Obviously, as with anyone new to having powers, Zoey is shocked, bemused and overwhelmed but as each episode passes, she learns to deal with it and with some help, she learns that she can help others in a big way through small gestures.

I love a musical and they’re executed superbly here, the choreographer of the show being one Mandy Moore.  Some of the singing has that over-produced Glee quality and I’m not sure if all the actors are singing their parts but given that the show relies heavily on a fantasy element, it doesn’t matter.  There are some genuine laugh out loud moments when a character will suddenly burst into song, and in some of the song choices.

One of the cute touches in this show is that Zoey has terrible musical knowledge, she’s rarely heard of any of the songs being sung to her and she doesn’t have much of a clue of any of the artists’ names.  Maybe this is where it’s also really clever in that she’s properly listening to what the person is saying without having anything filtered out by an emotional attachment to any of the songs.

To help in deciphering some of the messages, and telling her what the actual songs are, is Zoey’s across-the-hall neighbour Mo, who played by Alex Newell is a revelation.  Their first appearance comes right at the start of the show and they just drop straight into the role of fun, witty sidekick but as we later learn, there’s a lot more going on with Mo.

The rest of the regular supporting cast is outstanding, having binge-watched seven seasons of ‘The Gilmore Girls’, as well as the special, I’m always going to have a soft spot for Lauren Graham.  Here she plays Zoey’s’ spikey boss, Joan.

Mary Steenburgen, as always is lovely, and here she’s Zoey’s Mum, Maggie Clark with Peter Gallagher as her Dad, Mitch. He’s battling a degenerative neurological disease, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP), so it’s hard for him to communicate but as the show progresses, and with Zoey’s new power, we come to hear him with as much clarity as we do anyone else.   This core of the story is how Zoey and her family deal with Mitch’s declining condition and it’s based on the show’s creator Austin Winsbergs’ experience with his own father.

Everyone else is pretty much unknown (to me) but her office crush Simon, played by John Clarence Stewart and her co-worker/friend, Max (Skylar Astin) play a couple of very sweet, handsome guys.  There’s a fascinating and very complicated interplay between these three characters as Zoey isn’t sure which one she likes more, or does she like both equally, or both equally but in different ways, or…. It gets complicated.

I also really enjoyed the occasional cameo from some recognisable faces: Justin Kirk (Angels in America), Renee Elise Goldsberry (The Good Wife) and the ubiquitously awesome Bernadette Peters.

If I were to try to categorise this show, I would say it was a musical / superhero / comedy / drama.  At the time of writing, this hasn’t yet been renewed for a second season, but needless to say, I hope it is.

NetworkNBC / Netflix
CastJane Levy, as Zoey Clarke
Skylar Astin, as Max
Alex Newell, as Mo
John Clarence Stewart, as Simon
Peter Gallagher, as Mitch Clarke
Mary Steenburgen, as Maggie Clarke
Lauren Graham, as Joan
SeasonS1 (2020): 12 episodes

Normal People

Based on the successful book by Sally Rooney, this adaption, co-scripted by Rooney, tells the tale of Connell and Marianne.   Growing up in the Irish town of Sligo, they’ve known each other since they were 12 but only really begin to interact after Connell’s mum goes to work for Marianne’s mum as a cleaner.  Connell is quiet, thoughtful and popular; Marianne, is intelligent, assertive but alienates people and so is friendless.  Connell is pretty much the only other person that interacts with Marianne in any positive way and in her inimitably assertive way, she declares that she ‘likes him’ in the first episode.   They then embark on a secret affair, the secrecy is a destructive choice made by Connell out of fear of being judged by his friends for going out with the unpopular girl, and Marianne goes along with it out of fear of being rejected.

The story takes us from their last year of school to their last year at college and it’s as much of an emotional rollercoaster as you’re likely to go on.  The story has its very dark times but there are lighter moments and also ones of great beauty.  Some very complex issues are addressed such as the mental health of young men, domestic abuse and explorations of sexuality.   It’s in looking at these issues that this series excels, some of the scenes are heart-breaking and go right into your core to make you connect deeply with the characters.  They don’t seem like plot devices or the ‘issue of the week’, they seem like problems we all have, or easily could have.

Having watched endless movies and tv shows, read many books and listened to many songs, we’ve been conditioned into thinking that most relationships are between two fairly well-balanced people.  Often there’s some kind of quirk, or obstacle, but that’s overcome and usually there’s a positive resolution.   About halfway through this series I realised I was watching a story portraying real people, normal people.  Real people are fucked up, they have issues, they make mistakes.  Most people are fundamentally decent and have the best intentions, but emotional baggage, trauma and peer pressure throw bumps into our paths that prevent us from reaching the end in one perfect piece.

I guess one of the more controversial aspects of this show is in its depiction of sexuality.  I’ve never seen it as deftly, respectfully and so intimately portrayed as it is here. The tenderness in some scenes is palpable and stops just before it becomes intrusive or lurid so that we’re left with a deeper understanding of the protagonists.  Those scenes drive the story forward rather than becoming the reason for watching.

The two leads, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal both give incredible performances that make me excited to see what they’ll do next.   They imbue the characters with the truth required to tell the story of these two complicated individuals.  Marianne comes across as spikey and unlikeable (but cuttingly witty) when we first meet her but then we quickly gain some understanding and then fall in love with her.  Callum is a character you fall in love with instantly and that grows as the series progresses.  This isn’t to say they’re perfect, they really aren’t but despite the mistakes, the bad choices, the careless words or actions, they are a couple of good young people.

Aside from the two leads, I thought the character of Connell’s Mum, Lorraine played by Sarah Greene was the other outstanding role in this series.  Through her, you see why Connell is so morally grounded, she’s warm, loving and supportive of his choices but not afraid to put him right even if there’s a threat of alienating him.    Marianne’s mum, on the other hand, couldn’t be more different, and then there’s her brother…

The production of this show was impeccably done, there’s an idyllic quality to every location, from the home they repeatedly return to in Sligo to their lives at Trinity College in Dublin, to the house in Trieste, Italy and to Marianne’s year in Sweden.   The music is also perfectly chosen to suit every mood and is worth listening to in its own right as a soundtrack.

Normal People – The Soundtrack

One track that stood out for me, in episode two, was the appropriately titled ‘Hide and Seek’ by Imogen Heap as Connell and Marianne embark on their secretive relationship.  I recognised the tune and then the lyrics seemed familiar before it finally dawned on me that Matt Alber covered this on his 2008 album ‘Hide Nothing’, it was such a pleasure to hear this beautiful song in this beautiful story.  For those who don’t know Matt’s version, here it is:

Rather than binge-watch this, I wanted to enjoy it like you would a good meal or an expensive bottle of wine.  We watched it over the space of two weeks and in fact, I started watching it alone but by the second episode was so captivated that I got my partner to join me, so I watched it again from the start.    Having looked forward to every episode and just revelling in its beauty, I was enjoying the journey so much that I didn’t want it to end.  I was a little afraid that after all the brave storytelling there would be a ‘too-neat’ resolution but no, this is a masterclass in how to produce a satisfying resolution without resorting to tying everything up perfectly.

NetworkBBC / Hulu
CastDaisy Edgar-Jones, as Marianne Sheridan
Paul Mescal, as Connell Waldron
SeasonLimited Series (2020): 12 episodes

Raising Dion

Using a mostly unknown cast, this superhero, sci-fi, romantic, scary series succeeds on every level.  Dion and his mum Nicole live in Atlanta and from the first scene, we find out that Dion has developed some super powers.  What sets this apart from your typical superhero movie is love at its very heart; the bond between Dion (Ja’Siah Young) and Nicole (Alisha Wainwright) is beautiful to watch.  Nicole is a former party girl with a talent and a promising career who just happens to fall in love, have a baby then lose her husband.  At certain points, this show sets aside the superhero stuff and we see how Nicole is coping, what she’s feeling and what she’s dreaming about. We see her not just as a mother but as a young woman.

Ja’Siah Young perfectly encapsulates what you might expect from a 7 year old who’s just discovered he can make things fly with his mind (among other things) – he’s scared but he’s also REALLY excited.

Besides Ja’Siah, the young talent in this show is outstanding and special mention goes to Sammi Haney as Dion’s friend Esperanza. I fell in love with her so much, she’s fearless, pragmatic, wise and really funny. This is her first acting role, stealing every scene, she drops some properly funny quips. One lovely touch is that Sammy’s real Dad, Matt, also appears very briefly in the show as her characters’ Dad.

It feels like a show imbued with integrity and unexpectedly for a show in this particular genre, themes of race, disability and sexuality are also touched on, and very deftly handled. There were some issues raised that hadn’t ever occurred to me, and it’s evident that these parts of human life need sharing in a variety of accessible ways to increase understanding.

It seems commonplace now to say this about television these days but the production values are the same as you’d expect from a movie. The SFX are especially stunning and create fantastic things that look real; the choice of music throughout is perfect as well. The piano reprise of Lauren Daigle’s ‘You Say’ while Nicole dances on her own is just beautiful.

Michael B. Jordan (Creed / Black Panther) produces this series as well as appearing in a supporting role as Dion’s father, Mark. In the flashbacks to before the incident that takes him from his family, he has perfect chemistry with Alisha Wainwright and Ja’Siah Young. This is a burgeoning family that we care about really quickly and so the later separation becomes more poignant.

Jason Ritter (I was big fan of his Dad, John) is dependably good as Mark’s friend and colleague, and latterly the ever-reliable shoulder for Nicole and Dion. I’d only seen Jason in the short-lived ‘The Event’ (which I’d really enjoyed).

I’m very much looking forward to season two.

CastAlisha Wainwright, as Nicole Reese
Ja’Siah Young, as Dion Warren
Jason Ritter, as Pat Rollins
Michael B. Jordan, as Mark Warren
Sammi Haney, as Esperanza Jiminez
SeasonS1 (2019): 9 episodes

The Good Wife

It begins and ends with a slap!

I remember seeing a trailer for the first season of ‘The Good Wife’ on Channel 4 in 2010. It looked like an interesting new show, a bit of a different take on the courtroom dramas like ‘LA Law’ that I grew up watching – also I was a big ‘Sex and the City fan’ so having Mr Big in it was a big draw. But for some reason, I didn’t give it a go and as the years rolled on, it kept going, and the episode count ratched up to a point where I didn’t feel inclined to invest that much time in it.

However, when I saw it appear on Amazon Prime and I had some time to spare on my daily commute, I thought I’d give it a go. And so with my physical journeys to and from work, came the metaphorical journey of Alicia Florrick from loyal, mousy wife to independent woman and legal powerhouse.

156 episodes (and 6 months) later (approx. 120 hours of television), I have to say that there is something very special about this show. As with other legal dramas, there’s often one case to focus on per episode with a some long and slow-burning storylines layered underneath. I enjoyed the variety and contemporary nature of the cases as well with a lot of them dealing with new technologies, social media, political/security issues and a big chunk of episodes later on focussed on state sanctioned snooping.

There’s also sense of humour here that I really loved. It’s not hugely different or massively originally but the writing and time taken to explore character is something I don’t feel is achieved as well very often. The strength of this show comes through its female characters:

At the very top of this show is Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart – I always feel like I’ve never seen enough of her, she’s in this a lot and I love every moment of her on screen but I could always see more. In the 90’s, I used to watch Christine playing Maryann in the Cybil Shephard vehicle ‘Cybil’ and back then she stole every scene.

Diane is one of the most liberal-minded people you’ll find but ruthless when backed into a corner. She never seems to be afraid of having her principles challenged but often finds those principles strengthened as a result. It was good to see such a formidable character also show such vulnerability at times, never seeming to be forced or intentional.

Archie Panjabi as Kalinda Sharma – Our friends named their cat ‘Calinda’ after this character years before I’d seen the show so I thought it was just because it was a nice, unusual name. Kalinda though, is not what you’d call ‘nice’, she’s a law unto herself, take-no-prisoners kind of character and even when she lets someone in, she never really gives herself totally to them. Her friendship with Alicia is perhaps where we see her at her most vulnerable, especially when that relationship is put in jeopardy by something from her past that gets brought into the present. As with Christine, I loved watching every second of Archie on screen.

Carrie Preston as Elsbeth Tascioni – Only in 14 of the 156 episodes, this character is by far the best of the recurring supporting roles. She is totally on a another planet but she has a brilliant, legal mind that gets straight to the heart of every case way before anyone else. You can almost see the lightbulb ping on above her head while everyone else is still scratching theirs.

Lastly, there’s Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick. The evolution of this character arcs over the 156 episodes and there isn’t a point where she’s finished developing – as soon as you think she’s settled, something happens and she (and we) re-evaluate and adapt again. Fundamentally, her integrity never wavers, she makes a few suspect choices but her motivation is always to do the right thing, to be the good person yet being a good wife is a bit of a misnomer.

Alicia is really put through it and often she reacts by dusting herself off and getting on with life.  On a couple of occasions, it all builds up to be too much and on one occasion in Season 5 her reaction felt drawn out and self-indulgent.  However, there’s one scene halfway through the last season where Alicia completely breaks down in front of her friend with a monologue that is powerfully, brutally honest and heartbreaking.

And then there’s the guys…

Matt Czuchry as Cary Agos – I first saw Matt in ‘The Gilmore Girls’ (another binge-job) where he played the unlikeable, to me, Logan Huntzberger.  I’m not sure we were meant to like him, he was rich, arrogant, and fundamentally, he wasn’t Dean or Jess.  So when I saw him in ‘The Good Wife’, I was hoping he was just a passing character.  But nope, he’s in it right the way through, and I ended up being really glad he was.  Cary is a funny one to pin point, it’s like he’s Logan if he’d made better decisions.  He starts off as pretty unlikeable and unsympathetic but retrospectively, I think we can put that down to youth and ambition, but as he gains confidence and the respect of his peers, he develops into a really decent person.

Alan Cumming as Eli Gold – Alan is another eminently watchable actor, so I was really happy that he was in this from fairly early on right up to the very end. The character development is very subtle that it’s only when you finish the show and think back to the start do you realise how far he’s come, emotionally.

Josh Charles as Will Gardner – Definitely an Ally McBeal style storyline here (Ally & Billy) in broad strokes, from start to finish, except Will isn’t married to someone else. Will is an interesting character as some of his seedier choices get revealed later as the seasons progress. As with Diane, he’s a character wanting to be on the right side of a situation rather than always being able to do the right thing to get there.

Chris Noth as Mr Bi… sorry Peter Florrick – he is so burned into my memory as Mr Big that he does a sterling job in making me forget that most of the time.  Peter is Mr Big gone bad, mostly bad – he’s a good father and he wants to do the right thing, but he is totally, utterly unable to keep it in his pants.  And he seems to let those around him convince him into doing things professionally and politically that really aren’t going to pan out very well.

The number of guest actors is very impressive, and full of amazing character actors that you’ll have seen loads of times elsewhere:

F Murray Abraham (Amadeus), Morena Baccarin (Gotham), Jason Biggs (American Pie), Anna Camp, Stockard Channing (Grease), Kristin Chenoweth (Wicked), Gary Cole, Mike Colter (Luke Cage), Brian Dennehy, America Ferrera (Ugly Betty), Michael J Fox (that’s only Marty McFly!), Kurt Fuller, Peter Gallagher, Melissa George (Home & Away), Joanna Gleeson, Tony Goldwyn (Ghost) Matthew Goode, Mamie Gummer (Meryl’s daughter), Edward Herrmann & Kelly Bishop (Gilmore Girls), John Benjamin Hickey (The Big C), Eddie Izzard, Nathan Lane, Matthew Lillard, Christopher McDonald (Thelma & Louise), Kyle MacLachlan (Sex and the City), Marsha Mason (The Goodbye Girl), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen), Bebe Neuwirth (Frasier), Connie Nielson (Wonder Woman), Dennis O’Hare, David Paymer, Matthew Perry (Friends), Oliver Platt, Martha Plimpton, Parker Posey, Christina Ricci, Peter Riegert, Amy Sedaris, Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride), Jeffrey Tambor (Transparent), Maura Tierney, Blair Underwood (LA Law), Titus Welliver, Vanessa Williams (Ugly Betty) & Rita Wilson (Mrs Hanks).

If I had another 120 hours to spare, I’d definitely watch this again. But for now, it’s on to ‘The Good Fight’…

NetworkCBS (watched on Amazon Prime Video)
CastJulianna Margulies, as Alicia Florrick
Matt Czuchry, as Cary Agos
Christine Baranski, as Diane Lockhart
Josh Charles, as Will Gardner
Archie Panjabi, as Kalinda Sharma
Alan Cumming, as Eli Gold
Chris Noth, as Peter Florrick
Season(s)S1 (2010): 23 episodes
S2 (2011): 23 episodes
S3 (2012): 22 episodes
S4 (2013): 22 episodes
S5 (2014): 22 episodes
S6 (2015): 22 episodes
S7 (2016): 22 episodes

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (S1 & S2)

I came to Amy Sherman-Palladino’s work when stumbling across the ‘Gilmore Girls’ on Netflix, liking the first episode so much as to then commit to the next 150+ episodes over the next couple of years. What is great about the ‘Gilmore Girls’ is mainly the script, the lead character of Lorelei is annoying and palm-to-forehead-slappingly fickle but she’s charming and funny and loveable. However, it’s the relationship between Lorelei and her daughter Rory that is then the glue that holds the series together.

And now again, with ‘The Marvelous Mrs Maisel’ we have another brilliantly written lead character who is in no way as annoying as Lorelei but at least as charming and even more funny, which is a good thing given her line of work. And here too, the relationship between Mrs (Midge) Maisel and her manager and reluctant friend, Susie is the key component.

The first season starts as Midge accompanies her husband to a seedy club, The Gaslight, as he attempts to kick-start a career in stand-up. He’s ok but nothing special. Later on, he walks out on his marriage and Midge finds herself on stage at the same club inadvertently tearing the house down with hilarious stories of her recent life. This first episode thus sets up the premise for the show as she independently carves a life on her own, getting a job whilst finding that she loves making people laugh and developing as a stand-up. Well, I say on her own, she lives with her very affluent parents and their maid so money isn’t a concern neither is having to worry about who will look after the kids.

The writing of this show really is incredible. Each time we see Midge in front of an audience, be it on purpose on stage or in some random, sometimes inappropriate situation, she is properly, laugh-out-loud funny. I watched this on my commute to work, and that can garner some strange looks from folks at 6.30am. But it’s not just the stand-up routines, it’s the interactions between the characters, the sadness, the frustrations, the banter, it’s all perfectly pitched.

Another ‘Gilmore Girls’ similarity is that the creators are superb in their casting. The lead roles typically going to relative newbies and some of the supporting cast are well-known character and Broadway actors. Rachel Brosnahan is a revelation (I haven’t seen the US version of ‘House of Cards’) and inhabits the role with the vulnerability and confidence it requires.

In support are Alex Borstein as Susie and Tony Shalhoub as her father. There’s also a brilliant cameo by Jane Lynch as a very established and successful fellow stand-up that crosses over the latter end of season one well into season two. There are some wonderful touches too such as with the appearance of the original stand-up, Lenny Bruce who pops up throughout both seasons. He acts as Midge’s mentor and guide, there’s a very delicate flirtation between them that’s never going any further than an affectionate witty remark but it’s lovely to watch.

I don’t know if it’s because they did search a sterling job in portraying Midge’s husband Joel as so fickle, directionless and unreliable but I really didn’t know if I wanted them to get back together. It sometimes seemed like they’re meant to be together (especially when you see some lovely flashbacks) but I also thought… she can do much better. However, the over-riding theme of this show is showing Midge shine as an individual and so a love interest could detract from that.

Much in the same way that ‘Mad Men’ pulled off the 1950’s style so well, this shows plops you directly into that era. Don Draper could easily walk past Midge & Susie on 5th Avenue or turn up to The Gaslight with one of his lady friends. Also, when they leave New York in season two for a few episodes to go to Paris and then later to the Catskills, the styling again is perfect.  I was talking to an American friend of mine recently who told me that his parents got together whilst on vacation at the Catskills in the 1950s, his story grounded what I saw on screen with a touch of reality.  Then there are the odd random musical numbers and we’re whisked away to an MGM, Gene Kelly movie for a few minutes.

The music choices in season two are especially a work of genius. I don’t know how they thought to use contemporary tracks to end episodes but it works SO well in that they compliment what you’ve just seen and it doesn’t make it seem odd to hear a 80’s track from the Pet Shop Boys singing out a show set in the 50’s.

I’m very much looking forward to season three, and I hear there’s a story arc right up to a possible season five.

NetworkAmazon Prime Video
CastRachel Brosnahan, as Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel
Alex Borstein, as Susie Myerson
Michael Zegen, as Joel Maisel
Marin Hinkle, as Rose Weissman
Tony Shalhoub, as Abraham ‘Abe’ Weissman
SeasonS1 (2017): 8 episodes
S2 (2018): 10 episodes
S3 (2019): 8 episodes

Black Sails

A tale set up as a prequel to ‘Treasure Island’, it could be argued that ‘Black Sails’ is probably more of re-imagining of a possible prequel given that some characters and outcomes don’t necessarily tally with what transpires later.

As drama, this excels in the ‘Game of Thrones’ sub-genre that now exists in television.  ‘Game of Thrones’ comparisons abound and as a formula that works there, it really works here.  The competing factions, I think maybe 5 or 6 at any one time all working to their own goals, double-crossing and the shock killing off of major characters.  Very few characters are safe and I think it’s only (Long) John Silver, Billy Bones and Ben Gunn that are really required to be alive at the very end.  They also do that semi-regular thing of having the major shock / upheaval happen in the penultimate rather than last episode with the finale being saved for the cliff-hanger link into the next season. And again, like ‘Game of Thrones’ there is a ton of graphic sex and violence and similarly as the story progresses, there’s less sex and the violence gets much worse!  Understandably, the sex is there to establish relationships between characters (or just to give you a further insight into a character) and as those get established, the need for it becomes less.  Conversely, with this kind of action/adventure, the violent scenes become more graphic as the stakes are set higher and the competing factions become more desperate and ruthless.

As well as portraying many of the characters you see or hear about in ‘Treasure Island’, this show appeals to my love of history in that many historical figures are significant characters in this.  Basically, all the main people that aren’t from the book are historical figures, mainly pirates: Captain Vane, Blackbeard, Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny etc.  Though, it should be made clear that ‘Black Sails’ isn’t bound by any historical accuracy so this shouldn’t be taken as too much of a history lesson.

There are some fascinating character studies and without being spoiler-ish, the tracking of the descent of one character from aspiring saviour to despicable villain is devastating and tragic to watch but brilliantly and subtly executed.  However, the true heart of ‘Black Sails’ is the creation of the legends that become Captain Flint and ‘Long’ John Silver.  The dynamic between them shifts from disinterest to irritation to disdain then develops into as close a friendship as two people can possibly get, especially challenging given the environment of deceit, double-crossing and of course, piracy.  The heroes in ‘Black Sails’ are undoubtedly the pirates and the villains are the establishment, particularly the English Government.

Toby Stephens has quickly become one of my favourite actors, I’ve only seen him in this and the superb ‘Lost in Space‘ and based on just those two roles, he excels at the very flawed tough guy that you root for.  I’ve been very impressed also with Zach McGowan in ‘Agents of Shield’ and ‘The 100’ and he plays a very complex role here as Captain Vane, a protege of Blackbeard who’s both ruthless but fiercely loyal, to a fault.

I first saw Luke Roberts in ‘Mile High’ on Sky One back in the day; I really loved his character in that and I was excited to see him come in to this show in seasons 3 & 4.  He really couldn’t be more different in the character of Woodes Rogers, another historical figure (he’s the guy who rescued castaway Alexander Selkirk).  He gives the air of someone wanting to be noble but there’s an underlying fury that as it gets worse, gradually shows that he really is not one of the good guys.

I felt the gender politics were handled sensitively and knowingly without being too 21st Century revisionist about it.  Hannah New as Eleanor Guthrie is pretty much in charge of operations at Nassau as the show opens and this is portrayed effortlessly and logically.  The portrayals of the other major female characters, Jessica Parker Kennedy as Max and Clara Paget as Anne Bonny show how the choices they make are essential for them to just stand even a chance of survival.  This is a tough existence for everyone.   Sometimes, it feels like a cop-out is coming where you see something more traditional for one of the female characters but this typically gets subverted and becomes more of an honest depiction.

I was also happy and comforted in the depiction of sexuality in ‘Black Sails’; I honestly don’t know how same-sex relationships were looked upon in this period, I’m guessing not very favourably.  However, the environment of Nassau is far-removed from that of Great Britain with attitudes being more liberal and so the characters seem freer to love whoever they want to.  Same-sex relationships here are viewed as unremarkable and just as valid as the heterosexual relationships and this, I feel, is a refreshing move in high-profile television programming.

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the entire 4 season run, if I had to choose a favourite season it would be the second.  Season two marks a significant shift in the story and the motivations of Captain Flint become clear through the use of progressively revealing flashbacks.  Then everything changes in one instant.  A beautiful touch to signify this change comes at the end of that particular episode where the credits are played out using Nick Cave’s haunting cover of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Avalanche’; this being the only occurrence in the entire run where a song is used instead of the original score.

Lastly, the production values are stunning and meticulously executed in this show.  Every care, down to the smallest of detail is taken to portray life onboard a pirate ship or in the bustling and dangerous town of Nassau.    Flashbacks to Flints’ life in London are also cast with a drab hue in contrast to the blazing sun of the Caribbean.

This is a powerful story that arcs across the 4 seasons with an all encompassing moral that you really have to strive for happiness in love over the acquisition of money or power.

NetworkStarz (viewed on Amazon Prime Video)
CastToby Stephens, as James McGraw / Captain Flint
Hannah New, as Eleanor Guthrie
Luke Arnold, as ‘Long’ John Silver
Jessica Parker Kennedy, as Max
Tom Hopper, as William ‘Billy Bones’ Manderly
Zach McGowan, as Charles Vane
Toby Schmidt, as Jack Rackham
Clara Paget, as Anne Bonny
Luke Roberts, as Woodes Rogers
SeasonS1 (2014): 8 episodes
S2 (2015): 10 episodes
S3 (2016): 10 episodes
S4 (2017): 10 episodes


One of the first shows I watched after subscribing to Netflix and in my opinion, it’s consistently been one of the best.  This show follows lawyer Matt Murdoch as he enters a double-life as a vigilante.  His loss of sight as a young boy initially makes this seem like a really bad and short-lived idea however, this is the Marvel universe and Matt is able to perceive the world around him more acutely than someone with 20/20 vision. He’s also a exceptionally skilled fighter, I believe in a more MMA style than any singular technique.  Though, Daredevil is certainly a very human character and unlike most of the other Marvel heroes, he gets hurt, very badly and very frequently.

Charlie Cox as Matt exudes the quiet, brooding intensity required of a character hiding huge secrets from those closest to him. He wrestles with his inner demons the whole time (of which there are many) and continually questions his place in the world but his saviours come in the form of his friends Foggy & Karen, it’s with them that I felt we see him come alive most.

Vincent D’Onofrio is mesmerising as Wilson Fisk and like Matt he holds his emotions down for the most part but the difference with Fisk is that every so often there is an uncontrollable explosion of violence and fury.  Fisk is incredibly clever and calculating, he considers the very long game and plots the future out like he’s playing chess, but when pushed he has no control over his emotions and his genius is subsumed by an old testament-style God wrath.

There is a ton of character development in this show, extended flashbacks in a small selection of episodes give us some backstory and help us understand how some of the characters came to be who they are later on.  Understandably, much of Matt’s backstory is revealed in the first season, Wilson Fisk’s is then revealed later on and in the third season we get a stunning episode that helps us understand what makes Karen tick.  I would say that Karen is by far the bravest character, physically she is slight and has a look that she might start crying or screaming any second but she constantly fights that back and puts herself willingly into situations that many of the male characters would balk at.

Season two is a small departure from that of one and three, where Wilson Fisk while still an ever-present force (and more in control of events than at first seems) takes more of a back seat as new characters, Frank Castle (as The Punisher) and Matt’s ex-girlfriend Elektra come into the story.  Both these characters are like alternative versions of Matt; Frank is also a vigilante but with no off switch, Matt never kills but Franks’ entire modus is to methodically execute the bad guys.  Elektra is like Frank in that regard but isn’t too bothered by good or bad and doesn’t seem to have an end-game in sight, her character being both vulnerable and deadly.

There are some nice references to the wider Marvel universe; one example being the front page of a newspaper reporting the attack on New York from ‘Avengers Assemble’.  There are also references to other Netflix Marvel shows with the character of Claire Temple stepping neatly through all of them.   However, the use of known comic book character names is deftly handled so that this show is more grounded in a realistic setting than a fantasy one. Daredevil isn’t referred to as such until very late on; Bullseye isn’t name-checked at all; Kingpin is mentioned as a code-name for Wilson Fisk (much later on in the third season); Elektra is her name anyway.

Season one became widely known for one particular hallway fight in the second episode that took place over three minutes with more than one minute being a long-shot. Incredibly skilful in it’s complexity, we see Matt Murdoch fight a number of Russian bad guys in a small corridor; this sequence clocked up nearly three million views on YouTube:

In season three, they blew this out of the water with a long-shot of 11 minutes.   It was about three or four minutes into the scene that I realised what was going on with regards to the film-making.  A cut in a movie or TV show is like taking a breath, so when there are no cuts, your attention is held solidly and you’re literally holding your breath.  Film-makers like Hitchcock, Scorsese and De Palma are famous for their long-shots and they’ve been employed more recently by Alfonso Cuaron in ‘Children of Men’ and ‘Gravity’.   In this fourth episode of season three, Matt Murdoch moves from room-to-room, inside-to-outside, fighting off dozens of assailants and engaging in conversations in efforts to escape from his current situation.  Every element is so precisely choreographed, it must’ve taken months to plan and days (even weeks) to film but it really does pay off.

It’s a huge shame that this show got cancelled; I’m not a big fan of wringing every ounce out of a successful product and I guess the character did run for four seasons if you include ‘The Defenders’ but this show really stood out as something exceptional.  However, whilst they do leave a little opening for something more and there’s certainly more content to mine from the Marvel archives, I think if this was to be the end then they’ve done it well, I didn’t feel I’d been cheated of a resolution.

CastCharlie Cox, as Matt Murdock / Daredevil
Vincent D’onofrio, as Wilson Fisk / Kingpin
Deborah Ann Woll, as Karen Page
Elden Henson, as Franklin ‘Foggy’ Nelson
SeasonS1 (2015): 13 episodes
S2 (2016): 13 episodes
S3 (2018): 13 episodes

13 Reasons Why (S1 & S2)

[Spoilers below (not major ones)]

This is a tough one, tough to watch and now tough to write about (this has taken me a long time to write, edit, re-edit etc.). Through a series of cassette tapes (the titular 13), season one reveals why Hannah Baker decides to take her own life.  This is a difficult watch by any standard but especially so as the completely avoidable becomes somewhat inevitable. Each episode focuses on one of the people in Hannah’s life who she feels has a part to play in her decision. It would be wrong to say that every one of the 13 are to blame as their actions vary from not malicious, to petty, to mean, to truly terrible but the effect each of them has on Hannah’s life is tangible in varying degrees.

This looks and feels, at first, like any other high school teen drama and there are some delightful, funny, touching moments but this is also, necessarily, a brutal watch. Katherine Langford and Dylan Minnette have great chemistry as Hannah and Clay, they are both incredibly likeable, both flawed and both very complex characters. As the season continues, we begin to understand how complicated life has become.

It was an interesting decision to carry this on for a second season given that apart from a couple of loose ends, the story seemed to have been told and the important conversation had been started.  But as with many things, it’s more complicated than that.

For the first few episodes of season two, it felt like they were stretching the story somewhat and the narrative device of having Hannah appear as a ghost throughout seemed contrived but as it continued, it did make more sense.

I think season two enforced the awful finality of a decision, Hannah isn’t a romantic heroine, nor is she making a brave choice. It also shows, where the first season didn’t so much, how the actions of one person can ripple across and impact on so many others. It’s hammered home several times, that there is no future for Hannah, she isn’t coming back, there is no happy ending.

Whilst issues surrounding sexuality are addressed and race to a lesser extent, the focus here is on gender. Some of the different experiences and unique pressures that both young men and women can come under are dealt with and we are shown that either can be ‘bully’ or ‘victim’ and very often can be both.

Interestingly, a couple of the cast are shared with ‘Love, Simon’ (Katherine Langford & Miles Heizer) and with that plus the high school setting the themes of bullying, isolation, peer pressure are very similar. This feels like what could have been Simon’s fate had he not had an awesome family and great friends.

This show has come under a lot of flak and I can see that this is an extremely sensitive subject and of course parents especially want to protect their children but not talking about something doesn’t make it go away.

NetworkCBC / Netflix
CastDylan Minette, as Clay Jensen
Katherine Langford, as Hannah Baker
Christian Navarro, as Tony Padillo
Alisha Boe, as Jessica Davis
Miles Heizer, as Alex Standall
Justin Prentice, as Bryce Walker
SeasonS1 (2017): 13 episodes
S2 (2018): 13 episodes