Television

Stranger Things 2 – A Review

Created by The Duffer Brothers. Starring Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Noah Schnapp, Gaten Matarazzo, Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Joe Keery, Sean Astin, Sadie Sink, Dacre Montgomery.

This review contains spoilers from Season One of Stranger Things.

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I’m probably late in posting this review, as it would appear from the noise in every corner of the internet that most of the developed world has already watched Stranger Things 2. With Netflix’s previous flagship production, House of Cards, recently “suspended” under the most ignominious of circumstances, it could hardly have come at a better time for the streaming service.

This second season cements Stranger Things’ status as one of the best series in production. That comparison may be somewhat unfair given the fact that, thus far, it comprises just 17 episodes; whether its excellence can persist for as long as that of, say, Game of Thrones will be a welcome test of its longevity, and may ultimately dictate its position in television’s history (in any case, its creators have stated that it is unlikely to progress past a fourth season).

Stranger Things 2 begins almost a year after the disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) at the beginning of the first season. Having returned from the “Upside-Down”, the alternate dimension in which he spent the bulk of last season, Will’s life is still far from normal. Post-traumatic stress and his overbearingly protective mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) take a visible toll on him, and his otherworldly nightmares foreshadow the re-emergence of the supernatural in his life.

Elsewhere, however, life is largely progressing as normal. Among the obligatory influx of new characters is Max (Sadie Sink), a new student at school who attracts the romantic interest of both Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), but whose presence in the group displeases Mike (Finn Wolfhard). Also new to the show is Bob (Sean Astin, whom Lord of the Rings fans will recognise as Samwise Gamgee), a solid, reliable sort who has begun seeing Joyce. As was the case in the first season, although to a lesser extent here, the real start is slow to come.

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Having captured worldwide attention last year, Millie Bobby Brown’s portrayal of Eleven is once again a haunting spectacle. Although she has a more extensive vocabulary this time around, Eleven is still far from garrulous; Brown must often rely on facial expression to act her part. This she does with flawless judgment. The fact that the actress has only recently turned thirteen is almost hard to believe. The other of this season’s standout acting performances is that of Gaten Matarazzo, who is unerringly charming in his provision of comic relief. His prominence this season comes at the expense of Mike, whose position as the main protagonist has been shared roughly equally among the (now expanded) group.

Plausibility is not a concept that this show places a great degree of importance in. The pubescent leads are impossibly composed for their years, and the timing of many key events is highly improbable. However, in a world where children have telekinetic superpowers and bloodthirsty monsters emerge from rips in the fabric of our dimension, does it really matter? Believability is not the selling point; as a matter of fact, it is quite the opposite. Stranger Things’ greatest attraction is its setting, an offbeat universe that resembles our own, but is profoundly, magnetically different. Rather than scoff at its outlandishness, we must praise its fearlessness.

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This story arc travels to darker places than last season’s, and we are shown some very effective use of the horror genre; the show is truly frightening in places. As was the case last season, the soundtrack and the visual effects especially do an outstanding job of creating an atmosphere of menace and terror.

If you haven’t watched it yet, do. And try to overcome the temptation to do so all in one sitting.

5/5

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Television

Narcos – Season 3 – A Review

Starring Pedro Pascal, Damián Alcázar, Francisco Denis, Matias Varela, Michael Stahl-David, Alberto Ammann, Arturo Castro, Pêpê Rapazote.

This piece contains spoilers from Seasons 1 & 2 of Narcos.

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There was always going to be a challenge here in maintaining artistic credibility, of defying claims that this third season was shoehorned onto our laptop screens for the sole purpose of filling Netflix’s coffers. Up until now, the primary focus of Narcos was the dissection of Pablo Escobar (a delightfully sombre Wagner Moura) as a character, and in that capacity it worked beautifully. His psychopathic disregard for human life, which never once imposes itself upon his tender nature as a husband and father, makes for fascinating viewing, as does the slow unravelling of his mettle as his empire comes closer and closer to collapse. In the wake of Mr Escobar’s dramatic departure, this third season was left with a large gap to fill.

Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez, with whom we became casually acquainted in the second season, jointly assume the role vacated by Escobar. They are two of the four godfathers of the Cali cartel, along with Pacho Herrera (Ammann) and Chepe Santacruz (Rapazote), neither of whom feature as prominently. The two brothers share the limelight roughly equally over the course of the season, with changing circumstances dictating focus.

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On the law enforcement side of proceedings, Javier Pena (Pascal) returns to Colombia, taking up the mantle of narrator in the absence of Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook). With Pena returns his inscrutable façade and gruff determination to dismantle the Colombian cocaine trade. A cursory attempt at illustrating his life outside the world of policing is proffered, but few questions are answered; one is given the distinct impression that much more lies on the cutting room floor.

The singular, unemotional focus on action is tempered somewhat by the introduction of Jorge Salcedo (Matias Varela). Salcedo begins the season as a leading figure in the Cali cartel’s security network, with the intention of resigning his post in the near future to set up a private security firm. His usefulness to the cartel proves to be a stumbling block for him in this pursuit; he is told in the opening episode that he must stay in his job until the cartel surrender their illegal operations. Despite his earnest demeanour and effectiveness in his role, he is not a killer, and is shown to be uncomfortable with the explicitly heinous side to the cartel’s activities as the season progresses. He is also a family man, and the stress placed on his home life by his unique position within the cartel adds a human dimension (quite similar to that provided by Agent Murphy in seasons 1-2) that would otherwise be sorely lacking.

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The documentary aspect to Narcos is as important here as it was previously. Production footage is interspersed with clips from news reports of major events, and Pedro Pascal’s narration carefully details major events, as Boyd Holbrook’s did. As well as dutifully covering the most unpalatable acts of violence by those involved in the drug war on the ground, Narcos unveils the political ugliness that facilitated it, and ultimately asks some troubling questions about the viability of the war on drugs.

This, collectively, is where the show’s greatest strength lies. The fact that its subject matter is so shocking, that the despicable acts seen on screen were actually perpetrated, packs a compelling punch. Unfortunately, its duty to portray truth also handcuffs it considerably. Compared to the spellbinding insight into the Escobar family we were given in the second season, this season’s characters fail to capture the imagination on an emotional level.  The Rodriguez brothers are defined principally by the broad differences between them; Gilberto is a man of reason, who basks in the admiration of those around him, while Miguel is gruff and stubborn. In the absence of his former partner, Javier Pena is now the face of the DEA in Narcos, and spends more time on screen than anyone else by a good margin. Despite this, Pedro Pascale is given little to do other than portray stoic dedication to the cause of apprehending drug traffickers.

There are enjoyable performances from more minor characters; Pêpê Rapazote, in particular, is tremendous fun to watch as gleeful psychopath Chepe Santacruz, who runs the Cali cartel’s operations in New York.

It isn’t giving away too much to share that the ending, on the whole, is far from a happy one.

3/5

Television

We Need to Talk About TV Series

There are many questions we must ask ourselves regarding the dawn of television’s new age, or, perhaps more accurately, the new age of screen-based drama. Traditional television, encumbered with the unfortunate tendency to prescribe and rigidly schedule viewing content, is almost certainly on its way to extinction.

Television shows, however, which may nowadays be consumed on anything from a cinema screen to a wristwatch, are enjoying a scarcely believable renaissance. Production quality has improved steadily and big-name celebrities with illustrious film careers (Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, Winona Ryder in Stranger Things and Matthew McConaughey in True Detective to name but a few) are getting involved. The number of top-quality shows has increased accordingly; never before have discerning viewers had so much to choose from.

A major consideration here, of course, is the explosion in the accessibility of TV programmes. Before the birth of high-speed internet, if one wished to watch several seasons of the same show back-to-back, they would have had to purchase a DVD box set. These were rather expensive, and required a certain degree of commitment and forethought. Neither of these drawbacks apply to the wonderful invention that is the on-demand streaming service, however. Netflix and its competitors have made the dream of convenient, affordable, unlimited TV consumption a reality for millions across the world.

We do not have to cast our minds back too far to recall a time when television binges were considered the preserve of aimless teenagers and those with a pathological fear of the outdoors. After all, it was somewhat unreasonable to expect a well-rounded person to derive pleasure from hours of TV-watching when the most entertaining spectacle available to them for a large portion of the day was Jeremy Kyle.  Nowadays, things are different. There are now good, honest, respectable people, folk who, once upon a time, would have spent their free time hillwalking or attending Mass, that have no compunction whatsoever about announcing to their peers that they could contentedly spend entire weekends alone in a dark room, watching Narcos and eating crisps.

I have never been one to suggest to others what they should or should not do with their free time, nor indeed have I ever been a particularly voracious advocate of a healthy and balanced lifestyle. It does seem to me, however, that we should exercise some caution before embracing this new culture too readily, for a rather specific reason; time. The time investment one makes when they commit to watching a new TV series is massive (and often unforeseen).

Compare, if you will, the length of time taken to get through The Sopranos to that required to watch the entire Godfather trilogy (a film franchise noted for its length). Despite the comprehensiveness of the latter, the former is roughly eight times as long in minutes.

It’s probably true that, given its inarguable artistic qualities, The Sopranos represents a decent return on the time invested in it. But there is plenty of content that could have been left behind if it had become necessary. Scenes, storylines, perhaps even characters that would never have made it to the screen were it not for the requirement to fill up all those hours commissioned by HBO. Anyone remember the time A.J. made a stand to his parents by refusing to be confirmed in Season 2? I didn’t think so. And I (along, I’m sure, with many others) still feel profoundly wronged by The Fly, the unashamed filler episode that blighted the otherwise sublime third season of Breaking Bad.

The same complaint could be made of books, of course, where similar fleshing out of detail is commonplace. Novels can often stretch to over a thousand pages, yet it is unlikely that you will hear anyone accuse Charles Dickens or J.R.R. Tolkien of being unscrupulous time thieves. The key difference lies in the fact that it is quite difficult to overindulge in a book in the same way as a television series. Perhaps this is due to the level of active engagement required by reading, or perhaps merely our lazy preference for watching things unfold in front of us rather than having to imagine them to life ourselves. Whatever the reason, the comparison serves to illustrate my ultimate point; there is an addictive quality to television series, a tendency to absorb the viewer, that does not present itself in other entertainment forms, at least not nearly to the same extent.

What, then, is to be done? For those reading this who view their spare time as an item of irritation, something to be endured in as straightforward a way as possible, today’s unending raft of television programmes are most likely something to be celebrated. For those of you who aspire towards something more, however, perhaps think twice before blithely diving into whatever new Netflix creation catches your eye the next time you get bored.

Take it from someone who knows; it is not pleasant to find oneself halfway through the fifth season of Gossip Girl only to finally realise how dreadful it is, and that you have somehow spent over three entire days of your precious time on this Earth watching it. You have been warned.

Television

The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story – A Review

Starring Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Schwimmer, John Travolta, Kenneth Choi, Nathan Lane.

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Dubbed the ‘Trial of the Century’, the legal battle which sought to put O.J. Simpson behind bars for the murder of both his ex-wife and her friend was certainly not without intrigue. The details of the story, which unfolds over ten episodes, are frequently outlandish enough that they would not have worked as fiction; a hallmark of a great true-to-life tale.

The trial itself does not begin until the fourth episode, but this is not to say that there is any shortage of drama up to that. Episode 2 gives us an unmistakeable flavour of the absurdity that surrounds this story and its protagonist; those old enough to remember the events of the debacle that was the lead-up to the Simpson trial will doubtless enjoy the retelling. Those not of such an age may find themselves dumbfoundedly hammering their Google machines at this point in an attempt to confirm whether this is, in fact, a true story.

Once the trial begins, Simpson assumes a less central role, with a switch of focus to the lawyers on each side. There are acquisitions by the defence team and reshuffles on both sides. Controversy around the reliability of witnesses and the veracity of physical evidence spills over into the media, and the prosecution’s seemingly unassailable case is met with unseen challenges.

Replete with unlikely plot twists, this story also benefits from a diverse group of characters. The creators have made the interesting choice to keep focus in this regard quite fluid; no individual player is allowed to hog the limelight for too long. If anyone, the star of the show would probably be Marcia Clark (played masterfully by Sarah Paulson), the tomboyish and highly capable lead prosecutor. Her righteous anger at Simpson’s alleged crimes simmers beautifully, and the toll taken on her personally by the limelight of the trial is portrayed in sublime fashion. The other standout performance is that of Courtney B. Vance playing Johnnie Cochran, Simpson’s loquacious legal counsel. His soulful rhetoric is delivered powerfully, and Vance exudes both arrogance and genius in magnetic fashion. Both actors claimed an Emmy for their trouble.

Sterling K. Brown, also in receipt of an Emmy, gives an eye-catchingly controlled performance as Christopher Darden, an attorney for the prosecution. As a black man, he is directly exposed to the racial tensions that arose from the case; unlike Vance, however, he is not given the freedom to air his frustrations in bombastic prose at every turn. His soft speaking voice seems almost out of place in the courtroom, but acts as an effective counterpoint to the other main players.

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The remainder of the acting performances hold their own as well, although this may only be true in John Travolta’s case due to an unintended comic relief factor. His lines are delivered in a clipped, overly deliberate manner, and his movements are somewhat robotic; it is his face, however, surgically reconstructed to the point that he is scarcely identifiable as human, that steals the show. Gooding’s performance has been the subject of critical ambivalence, but his technical skill in delivering the role cannot be denied. Simpson’s reactionary, tortured mental state is portrayed with range and flair.

Ultimately, what begins as a murder trial that looks as though it will culminate in an easy conviction becomes a fascinating legal drama, and a look into the implications of the deep racial divisions in American society. Simpson’s innocence or guilt becomes an irrelevant consideration for many in what, for them, boils down to a symbolic battle against the oppression of the African community by the legal system and its enforcers. This series ultimately asks where the greater good lay in the trial of O.J. Simpson, and is too skilfully even-handed to suggest an answer itself.

While this series does not have the scope to present detailed dissections of its characters, it has more than enough material to present ten sharp, engaging episodes. Suspense drips and careful consideration is frequently provoked. For anyone contemplating a Netflix binge without the risk of too long a commitment (I got through it in under 36 hours), this might be just the thing.

4/5

Television

How Best to Boil a Frog

This piece contains spoilers

 

It struck me while watching the first episode of Designated Survivor, the first season of which is currently available to watch on Netflix, what a risk it had taken with the mere facts of its premise. It seems to want to be taken seriously; Kiefer Sutherland embodies a layered and ambivalent protagonist, and the script is careful to flesh out the political intricacies at play. It has not opted to become hyperpalatable schedule-filler, and critics have been kind to it; Rotten Tomatoes give it an 85% approval rating, and has been nominated by many commentators as one of the 2016-2017 TV season’s top picks. This leads to this article’s central question; how can we possibly take seriously a show whose first episode kills off almost every single American political figure of consequence?

Few others have had the audacity to present such a ridiculous concept and get away with it so early in proceedings; there have been many, however, who have started off with reasonable and even mundane plotlines in season one, before gradually introducing more and more improbable twists until we are left with an overarching story that bears no resemblance to even the corniest envisagement of real life. And one or two of them have done it to the sound of deafening critical applause.

Breaking Bad is probably the best example. On day one we are given a perfectly believable, if somewhat unusual concept. A dying everyman with little to lose turns to the murkier side of the law to help manage his family’s finances after he’s gone? Not something you’d see every day, but it’s certainly not outside the more remote realms of believability. Fast-forward to the end of Season 5, and Walt has managed to overcome inoperable lung cancer, become the most accomplished meth cook in American history, live alone in the wilderness for several months to defy a nationwide manhunt and, just in case anyone thought things were getting a little stuffy, top things off by murdering a roomful of Neo-Nazis with a remotely controlled sub-machine gun mounted in the boot of his car in the final episode. Put like that, the whole affair does seem a little OTT; nevertheless, Breaking Bad’s final season has a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an Average Rating of 9.76/10. Not only were critics tolerating the ridiculousness, they all seemed to love it.

 

If we exclude the sorry mess that was its recent fifth season (a valuable lesson in how not to overdo it), Prison Break pulled off the same trick, albeit to a lesser extent. Michael Scofield’s deliberate incarceration and ingenious breakout in the first season worked well, and charmed critics and audiences alike. As things got more and more outlandish, critical support fell away and viewer numbers began to decline, but not so much that the show wasn’t still a commercial success. The fourth season attracted a total of 6.1 million viewers; not bad considering that, by the time it finished, it had seen fit to bring three characters (Michael’s mother, father and wife, conveniently enough) back from the dead. Why anyone was surprised when Michael himself was reincarnated is a mystery, when you think about it.

19th century wisdom had it that a frog, when placed in boiling water, would immediately jump out and save itself, whereas a frog left in tepid water which was then slowly brought to a boil would be oblivious to the danger and eventually die. While experiments conducted in the meantime have disproven this theory, it has taken on a metaphorical significance, poking fun at humanity’s tendency to ignore negative change if it happens gradually enough. Al Gore used it to make us feel bad about our role in global warming, but I think it can be applied just as neatly to the wackiness of television series. We don’t seem to mind absurd plotlines too much, just as long as they have the good taste to wait a season or two, letting us get accustomed to our surroundings first.

Where, then, does Designated Survivor fit in? Have we become desensitized to plot contrivances and cheap thrills? Or have we just come to see television drama for the unrelenting circus that it is, and found ourselves content not to bother with the ordinary, sensible bits at the start? It is also probable that, given the tumultuous state of America’s public affairs at the moment, as well as the elevated terror threat, many viewers might not even consider the events of Designated Survivor‘s opening sequence to be especially unlikely. Whatever the reason, this show  is one bubbling pot that most of us seem happy to jump straight into.