The Netflix TV model is one that I really love. Episodes are as long as they need to be and as numerous as they warrant. Bloated 26 episode seasons on major TV networks will give a First Person Shooter for every Tooms and wouldn’t it have been a lot better had they figured out that island without all the time travel filler? It’s great to see smaller ideas get made with a bit less money but no less quality and this is where you get amazing telly like Stranger Things.
Like all good mysteries Stranger Things is spoiled with too much description but if you love suspense and ripping yarns then it’s the best telly in years. A bold statement and one that is tough to back up when I am hard pressed to give too much away but I would hate to take away the magic in this wonderful series. The basics are fairly straightforward though. Set in the 80s in a small US town a young boy vanishes and a strange girl appears. The two events seem to be linked and a trio of young friends set out to discover the town’s secrets.
The mood of the whole series is incredible. The electronic soundtrack alone perfectly fits with the time period but the entire thing feels like an early Steven Spielberg tale with the childhood camaraderie of ET and the creepy tones of Poltergeist. In fact it’s chock full of 80s film and TV references that were mostly lost on me (I was born in 1979 so only just made it into the 80s) but I am sure many eagle-eyed viewers will spot them.
At only 8 episodes Stranger Things is a tense and well-structured adventure. It’s creepy to be sure and viewers who struggle with being spooked out too easily won’t make it past the first episode but those that aren’t big babies will love the tale that Stranger Things tells. I sure did.
Kimmy has just been released from an underground bunker where she has been living for almost 15 years. She was lured in by a charismatic preacher who convinced her and 3 other women that the apocalypse was nigh and only the bunker was safe from the toxic wasteland that the world was about to become. Kimmy, who was 15 at the time of her abduction, is brimming with naive optimism after being freed and decides to move to New York to start a new life.
Reading that back it sounds like the blurb on the back of some dreary airport paperback but it’s actually the start of one of the funniest TV shows I have seen in years. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was created by Tina Fey who was also behind the highly acclaimed 30 Rock, a programme that I am also a great fan of and it has the same sort of comic cast and surreal one-liners. I love the way that jokes are casually thrown out there before zipping on to the next (‘The Smell? That’s just my new after shave Dutch Oven’) even if they are sometimes incredibly strange (‘Oh he never poops, they bred that out of them.’). There’s no wait-for-the-laugh cue or wacky expression to signal a funny. It just moves on to the next silly moment leaving you wondering if she really said that.
I just have the last episode of season 1 to go and I can’t wait. Every episode builds on the previous one and it just seems to get better and better. Anyone with a Netflix subscription and a pulse should definitely give this a go.
I almost missed The Fall. The temptation of all those high budget US dramas on Netflix might make you think a 6 episode run of a BBC-commissioned crime drama was a little old-fashioned. You might think an Irish detective story to be old hat. You would be wrong. It’s incredible.
The Fall follows Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), a Belfast serial killer and Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), the police officer trying to catch him. It’s a dark thrill that is utterly absorbing. We see Spector pick, stalk and kill his victims while Gibson and her team desperately scramble to identify the murderer. Dornan is totally convincing as the killer and portrays Spector with remarkable restraint. There are no wild displays of rage that would cheapen the character but a brooding violent intensity that is portrayed with a subtle change of tone or expression. Handsome and intelligent, it’s easy to feel yourself liking the empathic killer and the excitement of seeing him stalk through an empty house is dangerously infectious.
DCI Gibson is a veteran police officer, resilient and smart who enjoys a glass of red and a no-strings screw, a character who a few years ago would almost certainly be male. Anderson plays her so perfectly that she should be in text books about how to play a tough female lead without resorting to type. She is strong and practical without being bitchy or callous. It’s clear that when characters find her looks and strength distracting it’s definitely their shortcoming.
If all this talk of gender roles sounds a bit much then don’t worry. It’s just a theme running under what is a gripping series. Filmed in dark colours and with a creepy soundtrack, the end of each episode is almost like a relief but it’s one that ends quickly before pulling you right back in. It’s not gory or sensational but a slow burn that is deliberate and compelling. It kind of reminds me of that old series Cracker from the nineties but made in the style of Nordic dramas like The Killing or The Bridge. Ultimately The Fall is an intense character study by two fantastic actors. Season 1 and 2 are available on Amazon Video (included as part of Prime) and I would firmly recommend it.
SAMCRO are out of control. A criminal biker gang led by a man determined to take his anger out on the world and ride his club through hell’s fiery gates, casually shooting any devils foolish enough to get in the way. So far the seventh (and final) series of the Sons of Anarchy has had more double-crossing and gang violence than the previous one and I am only halfway through. I am surprised they haven’t run out of characters to put a bullet through.
It’s ludicrous. Alliances are made and broken faster than playground friendships and problems are usually solved by shooting someone in the face or a short truce followed by shooting someone in the face. They still have all the gurning angst and leather-clad bromance of previous seasons but it’s been dialled back to accommodate a chaos of shifting allegiances and shootouts where the Sons gun down rivals who ineptly return fire A-Team style into the dust. It’s like the writers have gone mad.
In a good way. Because it’s just a thrill. I am sure if you sat down and started pulling at the plot then the whole thing would unravel faster than a Primark scarf but in the moment of watching you just go with it. The idea of bikers nonchalantly murderising their rivals while the police give a we-got-nothing on-em shrug may not be very realistic but it’s certainly exciting. Like going on a 5-star rampage in GTA only to get dropped outside the court house once the police overwhelm you. Getting off on a technicality probably. Or something.
I am going to enjoy every minute of gleeful violence in the last 8 episodes or so because even though it’s full of unsavoury killers who value Harley Davidsons over human life it’s a wild and crazy ride that I can grin at while my disbelief gets firmly suspended. Then I will go and do the washing up like a normal person.
It’s 1981. Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings are small business owners that live in a nice suburb of Washington. They are loving parents. They are intelligent and charming. You would like them. They are also smart, resourceful and ruthless KGB sleeper agents that have been living in the US for the past 20 years and are willing to employ extreme methods to serve their Soviet handlers. You would still like them.
The Americans is similar to the Sopranos in making us like characters that we definitely shouldn’t. Tony Soprano should be beyond sympathy but after a few episodes I was under his spell. His humour, intelligence and vulnerability made me forget he was actually a monstrous criminal. The same is true of The Americans. Phillip and Elizabeth are dangerous spies that commit treason as part of everyday life and will protect their identities with murderous efficiency but throughout the series I found myself rooting for them, hoping their relationship would hold together and that their true identities would not be discovered. I was also rooting for the FBI agent that just moved in across the road. The agent whose job is to catch spies. It’s complicated.
Like The Sopranos The Americans is not about the incredible situation in which it is set but about the lives of the people that are surviving within it. Characters are conflicted when higher, idealistic goals contradict their personal feelings and their priorities and loyalties come in to question. There are no heroes or villains here and the classic roles of bad Soviet spy and good lawman are not so clear.
I have only seen the first series of The Americans so far thanks to its availability on Amazon Prime but I have my fingers crossed that the second and third will be available soon because it is a great series. Plus it has big 80s hair. Perhaps I should have started with that.