My Little China Girl - Top of the Lake 2

Jane Campion said at the Sydney premiere of Top of the Lake China Girl that keeping the title Top of the Lake was mainly for branding purposes, however she did not know why, but the subtitle China Girl just clicked for her. Although the body of the Asian woman who washes up in a suitcase on Bondi Beach, Sydney, is that of a Thai woman, she wanted the play on words regarding the fragility of an actual porcelain China doll. I suspect she also wanted to dig into the racism, sexism and the impact of colonialism on the perception of Asian women in western popular culture. But I may be putting words into her mouth. However, after watching the whole of the mini-series, I am not so sure that I am wrong.

Set in Sydney, Australia, a beautiful city that is showcased well (I may be biased as I live here), the story has Robin Griffin (Elizabeth Moss) returning from the top of the lake in the South Island, New Zealand (of the first season) to resume her job as a police Detective. She is investigating the death of the Asian woman and is also hoping to connect to the daughter she gave up for adoption when she was 16 years old. What we get is an exploration into white upper middle class suburbia, the legal sex worker industry that mainly involves Asian women and everything in between. Motherhood, friendship, casual misogyny (and not so casual), sex and the city of Sydney are all explored with great performances by all actors, from the well known (Nicole Kidman, Gwendoline Christie) to the unknown (Ling Cooper, Lincoln Vickery) and all the great Australian actors in between. 

Jane Campion executive produces, in addition to creating, writing, and directing, along with her long time writing partner, Jarrod Lee, and co-director Ariel Kleiman, who joins the creative family.  I have a feeling that viewers are going to either love or hate this series. It is beautiful, darkly funny with raw, poignant high points and some contrived plot threads. As a viewer you either accept them or you don't. I did. I hope you do too, as it is a compelling and evocative series anchored by an always awesome Elizabeth Moss.  

Limitless is So Much Fun - Watch It If You Can

The Bradley Cooper movie, Limitless has been extended into a TV series. As the Executive Producer and occasional cameo, Bradley Cooper was how this show was sold to the masses and me. I stayed for lighthearted tone with the really clever and funny homages, nods, rip-offs, whatever you want to call it to popular culture.  In addition, the props master is having loads of fun with this show, with making clay dolls of characters, a mini building out of post-it notes, NZT induced videos that show you what is going on in Brian's mind, and many other things. Here are my favourite references:

No. 5 - Bob Dylan

No. 4 to 2 - The Untouchables, Outbreak, The Abyss (I stood up and clapped this one as it starred Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and others. Get the T-shirt here

At No. 1 - Bueller, Bueller......Voodoo Economics


Iain Banks' Stonemouth has been dramatised by the BBC

Scottish author Iain Banks died in 2013 of cancer. This is a great loss to all who love books. This magnificent author was first published in 1984 with The Wasp Factory, a mainstream novel, however he is known within science fiction circles, as Iain M Banks, for the Culture series of novels. A big, philosophical, multigenerational story. In 2012, he published Stonemouth. It was the first of his novels to be adapted for TV since his death and going on the TV adaptation I get the feeling much was left out. The plot of Stonemouth is thus - Stuart returns to Stonemouth, a small coastal town north of Aberdeen, for the funeral of his best friend, who apparently committed suicide by jumping off the bridge into town. Stuart left Stonemouth after a sexual scandal and in doing so left his fiancé (his best friend's sister). All because his fiancée's dad is the drug kingpin in Stonemouth and was going to kill Stuart for humiliating his daughter. 

A good set up for a story. What the TV show does not allow is time for the viewer to get to understand the other character's perspectives. Stuart comes across as a petulant child who should get the girl because he has been in love with her since he was 12 years old. There is a fine line between endearing and stalking in this show. The story is told in two one hour episodes and this lack of time to let the supporting characters come to life is perfectly summed up when you have an actress of Sharon Small's calibre having one line (if any) in the first episode. What a waste of fine talent and a good story.

The BBC did it better over 20 years ago when they adapted Banks' The Crow Road. Similar themes of family, secrets and love, but brilliantly done with lovely performances from Joe McFadden, Bill Paterson, Peter Capaldi and Valerie Edmond. As TV adaptations go - watch The Crow Road, even with all that 1990s hair and fashion, it holds up. And it is a much better adaptation than Stonemouth.


Penny Dreadful is Back for Season 2

Isn't it great? The second season of Penny Dreadful is back on TV and it is glorious. Beautifully shot, striking images, heightened storytelling and great acting. That description could mean any TV show. Add in the Victorian London setting, a wonderful central performance by Eva Green, nineteenth century gothic literature origins, and the bonus reveal of Helen McCrory as the antagonist and season two has kicked off for a fantastic ride.

'Penny dreadful' is a phrase used to describe a type of cheap British publication in the nineteenth century that had lurid and highly sensational stories. They cost a penny to buy and they were seen as dreadful in polite society.  The show celebrates these origins and weaves in what is now identified as gothic literature tropes such as darkness, isolation, madness as in confusion over what is real or unreal, disease, superstition, eroticism, corrupt takes on religion, the occult, the English Aristocracy,  and life after death. You know, the fun stuff.    

Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) are not a characters from nineteenth century gothic literature like most of other characters in the show. They are created for the show but are anchored in the literary traditions of that genre. The show borrows from Bram Stroker's Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Oscar Wilde's The Portrait of Dorian Grey, which are all from the 1880s and 1890s. These novels and authors, along with their adventure counterparts like Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson focused on the external threat to the British Empire and how they are overcome. These threats just happen to be fantastical or otherworldly. It is not that simple in Penny Dreadful as the threat is just as much from within yourself and society as it is from the other. All of this and told in a visually stunning way as well. 

Catch a glimpse of the series below, but start at the beginning of the first season and catch up so you can join us all for twists and turns of its sophomore season.  

TV's MVP - Maria Doyle Kennedy

Maria Doyle Kennedy is one of those 'that guy and gals' that you see on TV across a variety of shows. She is an Irish actor/singer who elevates any material she is in and is able to play just about anything. The first thing I saw her in was The Commitments, the Alan Parker movie from 1991 based on the Roddy Doyle novel of the same name. Over 20 years later, she is still hitting it out the park.  Here are what I think are some of her great roles:

Mrs S in Orphan Black

Mrs Bates in Downton Abbey

Katherine of Aragon in The Tudors

Sonya in Dexter

Natalie in The Commitments

Canada's Strange Empire - A Western from the Female Perspective

On TV, the western genre has been depicted in many forms, from the traditional heyday of Mavrick, Bonanza, Little House on The Prairie, The High Chaparral to the 1980s/90s updates of Matt Houston, Walker Texas Ranger, Lonesome Dove, Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman and Young Riders (yes that is a deep cut, but I loved it as a teenager). Deadwood is the line in the sand when it comes to modern depictions of the genre with the move towards realism with a high dash of Shakespearean-like story telling and dialogue structure. This show moved the western from the white-washed, family friendly early evening westerns to a post-watershed drama that depicts violence, sex and some of the harsh realities of the historical period that they set in.  All of this in nothing new to a TV viewer who likes the western genre. We have been spoilt for choice with shows from the gritty end of the spectrum such as Hell On Wheels, to western/crime shows such as Longmire and Justified from the USA, to some more family friendly shows from Australia and Canada such as McLeod's Daughters, Heartland and Murdoch Mysteries.  

Here is another show to add to your viewing list.  Strange Empire has just finished its first season in Canada on its public service channel, CBS. It is set on the border of Montana (USA) and Alberta (Canada) around 1869. Canada was a new nation (established 1867 when the British North American Act was passed by the British Parliament and given royal assent by Queen Victoria. The Act joined the colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in one federal union.) A bit of a wild time in Canada's history with the Cree,Peigan, Gros Ventre and Blackfoot people being moved off their land across the prairie and in some cases wiped out by the growth of the fur trade, the establishment of towns, farms and the railroad. Minerals deposits were mined, fortunes built, lawlessness ensued and many traders from the USA crossed the border to offer 'whiskey' made up of dyes, poisons, alcohol and medicine for goods from the local aboriginal people. So more Deadwood than Little House on the Prairie.

Strange Empire explores this era from the perspective of three women, Kat Loving (Cara Gee) who is a mix of Cree and white heritage and is married to a Scotman, Dr Rebecca Blithely (Melissa Farman) who is on the autism spectrum and is a doctor travelling with her much older husband (also a doctor) who adopted her as a child, and after his first wife's death, married Rebecca to protect her, and Isabelle Slotter (Tattiawana Jones) the wife of the richest and most powerful man in the area, John Slotter (Aaron Poole), and the madame of whorehouse that is owned by Slotter. There is a big cast with many women who have more than the traditional, be seen and not heard role of women in a western. The show also gives voice to the stories of the Chinese immigrants, the Indian nations and other people of colour, who are not usually focused on in westerns unless it is a plot point to be solved by the white make protagonist. 

This is a bold show told with a mixture of gritty realism and lyrical wonder. It was created by writer/producer Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik, who created Durham County and has written for many Canadian shows. I don't want to go into too much detail about themes and plot points as it would spoil the joy of discovery with this show. If you like your westerns with a strong 'this is how it most probably was like' streak, give it a go. It is quite a ride.     

Just Watch The 100 and Jane The Virgin

Like young adult (YA) fiction, TV programs made by the American TV Network, The CW, focuses on storytelling aimed at teenagers and young adults. And just like young adult fiction, these shows are watched by people of all ages. Typically seen as the network that produces genre shows with love triangles such as The Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl that have furvent fan bases, The CW shows are often dismissed as guilty pleasures for adult TV watchers, embarrassed to admit they know their Stefan from their Klaus. In addition they are often not included in discussions about TV dramas, prestige or not, because they are genre shows. We all know these are not 'serious' TV, I mean Buffy The Vampire Slayer had no impact on the TV landscape, right? Well I say, firstly, there is nothing guilty about watching a show you enjoy, and secondly genre is the best way to tell stories about difficult issues. See this great article by Mo Ryan from The Huffington Post on which shows do this well. Two of the best shows on at the moment are The 100, which has just started its second season, and the brand new show, Jane The Virgin. And before you ask, what about Arrow? I agree, this is another great example, but it is in its third season now and much has been written about the show. Anyway, back to The 100 and Jane The Virgin. Two completely different shows that have strong female protagonists at the centre in common, as well as great writing, a good cast and they both have you asking when is the next episode on? I want to spend more time here. In this world. 

The 100 is science fiction. Check out the trailer for Season One below. It first seems to be a straightforward mix of Lord of the Flies and another YA dystopian novel, which is understandable because it is based on a YA dystopian novel of the same name by Kass Morgan. I have no clue if the show follows the novel so I cannot speak for the novel, but the show soon proved itself to be dark and gritty with choices having real consequences. There are romances, action, male shirtlessness and other hallmarks of a show from The CW, which can only recommend it to me, but may not be your cup of tea. The second season is two episodes in and is knocking it out of the park from a storytelling perspective. Here is hoping that it remains so. Catch up with last season and jump in now.

We are only three episodes into Jane The Virgin and it is great. It not only takes on soap opera techniques to tell the story but it also walks that fine line of mocking the tropes and making a point. And with a cast that is not white, middleclass and blonde. Start watching now. It is one for all ages.

TV Shows That I Have Put Aside

We are not short of hour long TV drama to watch and this year I said goodbye to a couple of shows I had been following since their inception. I have noticed that they are high concept soap operas which I usually love, but I feel that each of these series are not working for me. What is sad is that these are mainly female led shows, and I think it is because of the constraints that lead female characters are under in a US network TV show. Here they are:

Revenge.jpg

Revenge
If ever there was a series that needed a limited run with an end date, it was Revenge. It has reinvented itself a couple of times already and with each iteration I have less interest in the series as I am less and less invested in fewer characters. Imagine how we would have looked back on Revenge as a series if they had plotted out the initial story of Amanda/Emily's revenge on the Grayson family with and definite ending.  Depending on how that was accomplished, it could have been held up as a great series. However, US network TV is more about dollars than great storytelling, so I suppose it has been a good business decision for ABC.   

Nashville
The basis of a good soap opera is to have compelling characters that walk the fine line of keeping everything the same as well as working towards an outcome that the audience is hoping for. Nashville has had its problems regarding creativity and structure behind the scenes and I gave the series a little bit of leeway. However, apart from the two leads played by Connie Britton (Rayna) and Hayden Panettiere (Juliette), I have come to dislike most of the characters and am tempted to do my washing up during any scene without Rayna or Juliette unless there is a song.  The songs are good and what was keeping me coming back, but I have decided to opt out from now. 

Scandal
It is all just too much. I cannot buy into the emotionally abusive central relationship in Scandal. I do not care how much chemistry Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn have, this relationship is toxic and as such it damages the central character of Olivia Pope.  I can get onboard with the twists and turns of the show and the MELODRAMA, but this relationship leaves a sour taste in my mouth and as such, the series. 

 

NCIS
I must be the only person not watching NCIS in the world. When it comes to procedurals this is actually one of the best. It is made well, it has characters you want to hang out with and you do not have to concentrate much. However, it has gone on too long. I can suspend my disbelief really well with shows like this, but with no Ziva the show came to a natural end for me. I do not want to have the NCIS wheel reinvented for me, that is what spin off shows are for, see NCIS LA or NCIS New Orleans.

Nursing on the Crimson Field in World War One

This year is the BBC's World War One Centenary season on TV, radio and online. As a public broadcaster the BBC commissioned more than 2,500 hours of programming and events spanning 2014 - 2018 across its international, national and local services.  If this fact alone does not convince you of the importance of public broadcasting, that would be a very sad thing. One of the programs is The Crimson Field, which has just started on BBC 1 on Sunday nights.  

This show focuses on the lives of volunteers and nurses at a fictional field hospital in France during World War One. Yes war is bad and we have seen field hospitals done before, usually by the US in programs such as M.A.S.H and China Beach, and the BBC have proven that shows led by female casts and set in a historical period are popular and entertaining, so you may feel that you have seen this show before in different guises. However, it is really worth watching, as it shows you a slice of a society in change. Like, Call The Midwife, this show mixes the sugar and medicine to tell the stories of characters that would usually be sidelined in other shows. It also showcases some great British actresses who anchor the human stories amongst the truly horrific circumstances that was World War One.

Here is where you can find just about everything about this project - iWonder guides.

Televised Grief

If anyone has been watching Season 5 of The Good Wife, they are in the middle of dealing with grief. Grief as a TV watcher as well as seeing grief depicted on screen. I am not going to spoil the details of what happens in The Good Wife or any other show that is on at present. If the show has been off the air for five years, the death will be named. Accepting that viewers get invested in characters (and there is a whole different conversation about the relationship between a TV watcher and fictional character) lets look at storytellers convey grief in a TV series.

There is a difference between death and grief and a death is used often in storytelling on TV. It can be used as a cliffhanger, a chance to reset story lines, giving the characters a reason to do something, a way to get out a plot hole or a way to up the stakes, cough, Breaking Bad, cough. How long does a program show the remaining characters going through grief? It must be a difficult line to walk as most shows are about moving the plot forward and making sure that they entertain. So grief is usually depicted as immediate big reactions that move to more proactive emotions such as anger (which is usually linked to revenge) all within one or two episodes so a show can start to move on to its new direction. 

In the past we have had Six Feet Under, which is a show about life and death. So grief is part of the DNA of the show, however the grief in the first season was dealt with when we did not know much about the characters and were getting to know them through this emotional lens. It is only until the last season when we go through Nate's death that how Six Feet Under deals with grief is highlighted for us. We think we know how a character should react (like we assume about our friends) and we are watching to see if this is correct and how it will play out.  Here is an excellent article written in 2005, about the authenticity of grief in the show.

The original Danish series, The Killing, paints the picture of a couple's grief throughout the first two seasons or 20 episodes depending on how the show was presented to you. I have not watched the American version, but the original is very very good and the impact of the death of the murder victim of the remaining members of her family is expertly written and portrayed. Here is a great summation of the show.  The Body episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is held up as the definitive take on grief in one episode. It contains the storytelling to one episode and takes the viewer through the ringer. However, it is more about anchoring the show in the reality of being powerless in a world where people have superpowers and there are monsters to kill. 

It will be interesting to see how The Good Wife plays out this scenario. Already they are indicating that they are spending more time with the other aspects of grief such as numbness, being hit by random emotional overloads, suppression of reactions, keep up a front and being true to the character and how they will deal with something that is overwhelming. I for one will be watching.

Rewatching Fringe

I had not watched Fringe since it was originally on TV in 2009. I am a fan of the show and was on board for all its twists and turns and bonkers world building. This year we have had a number of US network shows that are aiming for that mix of procedural and mythology that made the X-Files a huge success. Almost Human and Intelligence (basically Chuck if the chip had stayed Bryce Larkin's brain) have shot for this territory and have come up short as they have failed to create a reason for the audience to come back each week. Both shows have been too procedural and have not created enough of a bigger story arc or a world filled with people we want to spend time with each week. They are both nice enough, but neither show has left me with a feeling of 'what the heck just happened? I want to know more' or have pulled me into the lives of the characters as Fringe did. Many TV critics and viewers thought that Fringe was not in the same league as the X-Files but I think this show should be seen for itself and not for what it is not.

The best thing Fringe did was finish on a high note, with a complete arc that had enough coherence to it and enough emotional wack for you to go along for the ride. The rewatch value of a show that has not gone off the boil and gives you a clear beginning, middle and end is very high. The usual worries about premature cancellation, bad ratings and what the heck is the next season going to be about are not there when you are rewatching.  You can delve into the world and just enjoy it.  I am in the middle of season 2 and the thing that is really noticeable is that Fox really really wanted higher ratings and a mainstream hit.  They reintroduced the story concepts time and time again and did a stretch of standalone episodes in the beginning of season 2 that was bait for the casual viewer.  As soon as Fox realised they had a cult hit on their hands and that the audience was steady and very vocal and unlikely to get bigger, they left the show to the writers and that is when Fringe leaves all the vestiges of being the pretender to the X-Files throne and stands for itself. Fringe becomes about the triumph of love. Family love, romantic love, friendship. All types of love. Not something you expect from a science fiction show that shows you monsters every other week.  

This series dared to do just about anything and most of the time pulled it off.  This is down to some excellent writing and directing but also due to a fantastic cast led by Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson and John Noble. I am anticipating some great episodes that I know are coming and I am enjoying where I am now in the storyline, being reminded of the small bits and pieces that were not in your face in the first viewing. For example, the traditional gender dynamics of a gun toting female FBI agent and a charming science guy are slowly inverted as the characters become more than a stereotype. Olivia Dunham does not wear high heels as an FBI agent and actually runs after the bad guys in a trouser suit with sensible shoes and her hair tied back in ponytail (most of the time). Peter Bishop is not portrayed as less than masculine just because he is not the protector in the situation. The characters become so much more than that. As a fan you become very invested in Peter and Walter Bishops father/son relationship.  There is humour, pathos, some gross out moments, scary moments, great use of music, and of course the brilliant promos and teasers done by Fox.

I am enjoying my rewatch and I highly recommend starting at the beginning and watching this show. 

P.S.  I have never been so happy as when the writers realised that the John Scott story was not working and they wrapped that thread up leaving the character of Olivia Dunham to become so much more.

What to Watch if You Are Not Into the Winter Olympics

Well, the Winter Olympics is upon us and although I love a good ice dancing competition as much as the next person, there are some other things you can watch if you are not partial to snow and ice combined with physical activity.

Catch Up on a recent TV series you been meaning to watch

With the TV schedule now bursting with new programming.  There are plenty of TV series that are on your DVR from last year (or the year before) that you have just not gotten around to watching. There could be many a reason. I for one have not watched Breaking Bad yet as I still have to overcome my watching people getting shot in the face fatigue that has come over me after years of antiheroes being nasty to people in creative ways. 

Bron/Broen (The Bridge) 
 I have written about this show before. This is the original. The US remake is fine, so is the UK one, but they do not come close to the original co-production from Denmark and Sweden. This show is promoted as crime thriller that shows the cultural differences between two neighbouring countries but it really is just a study in friendship between to the two leads. If you watch the original and are not from Europe, you do not have much of an understanding about the nods and comments to the differences between Denmark and Sweden as for one, you are reading English subtitles that does not tell you if Danish or Swedish is being spoken, but that does not matter as the performances by the leads and the emotional journey you go with them dominates the show. You can read some excellent blog posts here about the show from The Guardian, proving that a show's fandom and community can be just as much fun as the series. 

Call The Midwife
This is a British gem. Set in the 1950s in the East End of London and based on the memoirs of midwife Jenny Worth, this series focuses on the nuns and nurses of Nonnatus House who look after the pregnant women in Poplar. It may come across as a gentle Sunday evening drama, but it is a wolf in sheep's clothing as they take on issue such as abortion, poverty, racism and illness.

Southland
This series about cops in Los Angeles started out on broadcast TV, but did not get the viewership required. It moved to cable and trimmed down it's cast and storylines to put out four more seasons of great TV with wonderful performances from a multicultural cast.

Top of The Lake
This limited run series from the Sundance Channel is set in a small town in New Zealand where the crime and the community blend. Co-created, co-written and co-directed by Jane Campion, the cast is led by Elizabeth Moss and Holly Hunter and populated by great Australian and New Zealand actors. Dive deep into this beautiful slowly revealing story.

Justified
This series is in its fifth season of the modern cowboy show. It is about US Marshall Raylan Givens who goes back to Kentucky where he grew up and has to deal with the local Dixie mafia who have members that he is either related to or grew up with. The character was created by Elmore Leonard who had Raylan appear in his novels Pronto and Riding The Rap. The tone of the series is very similar to an Elmore Leonard novel with dark humour, sly commentary on society and an antihero.

Watch a Classic

What defines a classic.  These do in my book.  I know it is about the most times they appear on greatest TV program lists and the subsequent debates that spring up online. So basically taste. These are my suggestions.

Oz and The Wire
Don't let anyone fool you. The beginning of the so-called golden age of TV was not The Sopranos, it was these two HBO dramas. Oz is short for the Oswald Sate Correctional Facility for men. It is a hard core prison and the 56 episodes covers a lot of violence and awful circumstances, however, it does tell a very human story of love and redemption. Each of the five seasons of The Wire focuses on one facet in the city of Baltimore - the drug trade and police department in season one, the dockers and seaport in season two, the city government in season three, the schools in season four and the newspaper industry in season five.

Battlestar Galactica
The remake, not the original. On paper, this should not have worked. It was based on a kitsch 1970s science fiction show that last a season, sort of. However, this remake changes the gender of two main characters challenging the female tropes in TV shows. It is also one of the most political shows of its time as it challenged the assumptions around terrorism, government and religion. oh yes, it is also loads of fun with great action scenes and characters you will love.

Pride and Prejudice
There are many dramatic versions of Jane Austin's famous novel, but in my book, the BBC 1995 mini series starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, is the definitive. There are startling performances from all involved, and a high level of sexual tension between the leads.  Hard to get right but essential for a story like Pride and Prejudice.

Six Feet Under
This show is not talked about often at present with the discussions around anti-heroes, violence and cinematic TV shows sparked by the end of Breaking Bad. I suppose it is because although it technically has an 'anti-hero' at the centre, Nate is really just a pretty normal and his unattractive qualities are as equally emphasised as his attractive qualities, and the show is really an ensemble not centred around one white middle class man. The show is also whimsical an darkly funny. It is about life and, most importantly, death.    

Clocking Off
This British drama was created by Paul Abbott ran for four seasons at the beginning of the 2000s. It is an anthology series that follows the lives of the employees and the families connected to a Manchester textile factory. It showcases the best of a generation of British acting talent with wonderful writing that captures what could be seen as a simple story about relationships and families. But there is nothing simple about these stories. The British TV structure allows for anthologies or standalone stories and this show is a perfect example of it.

Try Something Completely Different 

Something completely different means genre and subtitles as I make big assumptions about general TV tastes and offer up suggestions that may not have been given the attention they deserve.

Orange Is The New Black
This show is beloved and written about with TV critics circles and understandably so. But I am not sure how many TV watcher are aware of it. Mainly due to the fact that it is on Netflix, an US ondemand internet movie and TV media provider, so there is no traditional promotion of a network TV program that connects to the ad hoc TV viewer, and most importantly it does not have a famous movie actor at the centre of it. You could imagine the marketing department at Netflix looking at these elements and despairing and thinking with horror that their bosses wanted them to promote a show that is a combination of comedy and drama about women in a minimum security prison on its quality and storytelling alone. The horror. Thankfully, in this day and age, word of mouth stands for something. Take my word for it and watch it.   

Top Boy
This show is often called the British version of The Wire and it does sit in its shadow, but it stands on its own legs. It tells the story of the youngsters in a housing estate East London, the drugs, the gangs and the lifestyle. It is economically story telling with only four episodes in the first season. 

The Returned
I know another subtitled show, get used to it. This French show takes the zombie genre and makes it a story of loss and family relationships. The tone, look and feel of the show is just as important as the storytelling. The US, of course, are going to remake it, but like the Danish shows before it, just watch the original because the setting and the culture is just as important as the plot.

Orphan Black, Farscape, Fringe and Firefly
I am putting a bunch of shows together that come under the umbrella of science fiction. But like any genre, there is so much more to it than the science fiction tag. Orphan Black is about cloning in the modern day. It is a techno thriller. Farscape is a straight out group of aliens (with the token human) band together on a ship in out of space in a galaxy far far away.  The aliens are not just humanoide with forehead bumps, they are aliens brought to the screen through Jim Henson's creature shop and not CGI. This is very effective. Firefly is Joss Whedon's short run TV show that spawned a movie and a huge cult following. It extrapolates the future of earth dominated by two superpowers, the US and China, and how this earth government has extended across the galaxy. The show was pitched as cowboys in space and the show follows the exploits of eight humans who live on the space ship, Serenity, who live as outlaws on the edges of the civilised galaxy. Fringe is about parallel universes, technology and time travel but like of these shows it is about love and relationships. These shows resonate with viewers because of these relationships. The science fiction universe is just the mcguffin to get people there. 

Ripper Street, Doctor Blake Mysteries and Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries
Like the science fiction genre mentioned above, there are crime TV shows. What I am recommending here are some shows withing the historical crime sub genre. Ripper Street is set in the East End of London just after the Jack The Ripper murders and this is acknowledged and is the basis to the tone of the first series. It taps into the change in technology an medicine towards the end of the 19th Century and most importantly the change in the British police force such as the methodologies and the inherent corruption. The Doctor Blake Mysteries is set in Ballarat, a small town in Victoria, Australia in the 1950s, Blake is the local Police Surgeon and he assists in the solving of crimes. Like all historical crime, it is the setting and the commentary on society that is just as important as the plot. Another Australian historical crime series is based on the novels of Kerry Greenwood which feature high society private investigator Phrynne Fisher in the 1920s in Melbourne. Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries is lighter in tone than the previous to shows highlighted an it is sumptuous in look and feel, which is reflective of the lead character.

Death Comes To Pemberley - A Different Type of Fun from the Original

In 2011, crime author PD James continued the story of Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice with a tale of death and marriage. She wrote Death Comes to Pemberley, set six years after the marriage of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett and involving the death of Captain Denny and the trial of brother-in-law George Wickham. In 2013, the book was made into a three part mini-series by the BBC, starring Matthew Rhys as Darcy and Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth.

 

Shown on the BBC between Christmas and New Year, Death Comes to Pemberley was great. The actors hold their own in iconic roles and that is the double edged sword of this story - the very long shadows of Austin's beloved characters. They are well written and excellently played and the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth is all that Austin fans expect it to be, even if it is tested during the story. However, this is not Pride and Prejudice, this is a regency crime story which just happens to be set at Pemberley and involve the same characters. If you come expecting the former you will be disappointed. this is a different story and better for it. Sit down and enjoy the story, it is excellently done.

Christmas Specials on TV

Christmas Specials are difficult to get right. The story needs to be able to stand alone and to further the plot lines of the program. The are a couple of ways of doing this, the story can either make a massive change to the series with a big event or it can touch base with beloved characters and not alter the overall season storylines too much. The three British TV programs that had Christmas Specials this year, that I watched, one did a big change and two touched base.

Doctor Who - The Time Of The Doctor

The Big Event - The Battle of Trenzalore, where the Doctor dies, but a 13th regeneration happens.

What This Means for the Storylines - this is a big change to the Doctor Who lore. The Doctor was only able to have 12 lives and then the show was to end. But this is the reign of Moffatt and if we have learnt anything under his tenure is that rules are there to be changed or broken.

The Result - This was not the best farewell for Matt Smith's Doctor. I am sure it made sense to someone, but I stopped following the plot and just waited to see how they were going to McGuffin the regeneration. There is one thing that made me feel something other than impatience and a little bit of boredom - the call-backs to River Song and the Amy Pond cameo. What it showed me was how little we have come to care for Cara, not because of the actress, who does a good job, but because we have not spent time with her as a character. She has only really been a symbol and not a fully fledged character. Here is hoping the next series does that for her.

Downtown Abbey - Season 4 Christmas Special

The Big Event - Cousin Rose's presentation at the Royal Court and her coming out Ball in London in 1923.

What This Means for the Storylines - There is a visit from Cora's mother, again, played by Shirley McLain and her brother Harold (Paul Giamatti), more of Mary's men, a big decision by Edith and a continuation of various plots from season four, involving Bates and Anna, Thomas and Baxter, and Mrs Crawley's new paramour.

The Result - unlike the shocking ending of the previous year's Christmas Special, this year, there is humour, a massive slice of Royalty, intrigue and lovely frocks. The episode was like putting on a comfortable pair of PJs and having a cup of tea. Nice and cosy and a nice way to spend 90 minutes.

Call The Midwife - Christmas Special 2013

The Big Event - An unexploded bomb from World War Two is found in the foundations of a building near Nonnatus House causes an evacuation of the convent and other houses on the street.

What This Means for the Storylines - A little bit more self contained than Downton Abbey, this Christmas Special had a call out to the National Health Service, a wedding, a birth, and the return of the Scout troop.  Shelia (nee Sister Bernadette) came to terms with leaving the convent and deciding to marry Doctor Turner, we said farewell to Nonnatus House as it was declared unsafe to live in due to the bomb, and we learnt a little more about Trixie's past.

The Result - Definitely the most Christmas of the specials the quiet achiever that is Call The Midwife bathed us in well rounded characters, a little bit of social history and the importance of the NHS. It was a lovely way to spend an evening.

The Fabulous Allison Janney

I have been watching Masters of Sex and like anyone else who is watching, I have been blown away by the acting in the series, and especially the work of Allison Janney as Margaret Scully, the wife of the Provost. Janney has been acting in TV and movies for 24 years and is best known for The West Wing, where she won many awards through its seven year run. She is a great actress that brings so much to every role she is in, no matter how big or small it is. So, as a shout out to the fantastic Allison Janney, I am highlighting five of her performances that have stuck with me. This is subjective and I am sure you will have your own choices as well. Enjoy.

CJ Cregg in The West Wing

Margaret Scully in Masters of Sex

Miss Perky in 10 Things I Hate About You

Loretta in Drop Dead Gorgeous

Betty in The Way Way Back

Behind the Scenes with The Killing and Borgen

This week in Sydney, Australia, we were lucky enough to get the opportunity to speak with Piv Bernt, Head of Drama at DK (Danish Broadcasting Corporation); Sofie Gråbøl, the lead actress ofThe Killing (Forbrydelsen); Adam Prise, creator and writer of Borgenand Sidse Babett Knudsen, lead actress for Borgen. Hosted by Australian TV personality Julia Zemiro from SBS, the talk gave us an insight into the way that TV drama is made in Denmark through the public broadcasting system and the strengths and weaknesses of having a small population on which to source the creative team.   

First off, the talk was in English, so the four people being interviewed spoke fluently in their second language and in the case of Sidse Babett Knudsen, a third language as she also speaks French.  Very impressive. Glimpsing behind the scenes on TV programs is usually the domain of US entertainment industry, and if you are lucky some very popular British programs.  To see how it is done in a European country is a rare treat.  Denmark has the population of 5.59 million.  So not many people in the grand scheme of things. DK is the public broadcasting company in Denmark and it runs in a similar way to the BBC, as it is an independent, licence-financed public institution. In the mid 1990s the Head of Drama at the time decided to focus on building quality stories with one vision. Inspired by the writing format of American shows on HBO like The Wire and Six Feet Under, that use a group of writers who work with the creator/show runner, and combining it a commitment to telling stories about contemporary Denmark, with all its strengths and weaknesses. For a writer/creator, getting a story commissioned by DK is the biggest hurdle, as there is an insistence from the broadcaster that the show is not just its three sentence description, it has a second or third layer that reflects life in Denmark.  Once the idea is commissioned, the 'one vision' approach takes over. The writer/creator is given 20 episodes to tell a story and enough pre-production time to build a team of cast and crew that contribute to the 'one vision' of the story that is being told. If you look back at the series of shows that came out of Denmark since the 1990s you could make a case for the inevitability of the success of The Killing and subsequently Borgen, The 'one vision' approach is working.  

 

An important point made by Piv Bernt when asked by why The Killing became an international hit when the previous shows from DK did not, was the investment made in production values. The look, the tone, the music and sound are important, and so is the acknowledgement and use of a unique location - Denmark. What a no-brainer.  No wonder tourism has increased in Denmark. It is a country I want to go to now, not so much before I watched my fill of Danish dramas.  

There are lessons in the approach taken from DK. The commitment to a story with a 20 episode commission takes the executive conversation away from ratings and the cancellation pressure off the cast and crew. The limited resources and opportunities makes the commissioning process more rigorous which means if the story is picked up, it 50% of the way there.   

The discussion also touched on the remakes - very polite, but just watch the original; the small pool of actors in a small country and the delight in offering well rounded characters of both sexes.  These stories are about human beings, no matter their gender. 

 

Deb Morgan - The Ways They Made Her Life Miserable

The final episode of Dexter aired on Sunday in the US and SPOILER......................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................Deb Morgan is killed off.  The final indignity to a character that has been the punching bag for a series.  Let me count the ways.  

1. Her father ignored her as a child in favour of her adopted brother.  She never felt she had his approval, so over compensated and became a cop like her father to try and make him proud 

2. Ice Truck Killer -  she falls in love with a guy who ends up being the Ice Truck Killer and Dexter's brother.  She is kidnapped by her fiance so he can reveal himself to Dexter.  So her first big love, who asked her to marry him, targeted her because of her adopted brother Dex.  So no love there.

3. Lundy - recovering from betrayal of her ex-fiance and feeling that she is not a good cop because she did not spot that her ex-fiance was the Ice Truck Killer, Deb does not start the season in a good mind space.  She works with an FBI agent who comes to Miami to help out on a case.  This agent starts out as a father-figure for Deb, but  then it develops into a romantic relationship.  He leaves her at the end of the season because he needs to hunt serial killers.  On a good note, she gets her confidence back as a cop. He returns in season 4 and they rekindle their relationship only for him to get killed. The second guy she falls in love is a good guy, but ultimately dies.  No happiness for you Deb.

4. Joey - She is lumbered with Joey Quinn as a new partner who is being investigated by Internal Affairs for being dodgy.  Don't get me started on this relationship.  By season 5 Deb and Joey have started an intimate relationship and half way through the season she finds our he is investigating her brother, Dexter, behind her back. They break up but reconcile before the end of the season. Quinn is still quite a dodgy cop or at least a cop not making good decisions, but he attempts to clean up his act. He is also not the best at his job. At the beginning of season 6 Quinn proposed to Deb, she turns him down, like she should, she is far too good for this guy.  She is promoted to his boss.  Awkward. Stuff happens in her personal life in season 6 and 7 that is a whole other subject.  In the meantime, Joey dates a Russian hooker, gets involved in some gangster stuff that causes him to break the law, a lot,  He drinks a lot and takes drugs and finally starts to come clean when challenged by Batista.  He starts to date Batista's sister, but still carries a torch for Deb. By season 8 Debra is a mess emotionally and is putting herself back together and it ends with her getting back together with Joey and telling him she loves him.  Really.  Joey. They could not have found anyone else? Anyone?

5. Being a cop - Debra earns her Detective badge by the end of season 3.  By the end of the season she is jeopardising this by starting a relationship with her confidential informant (CI).  The relationship breaks up when Lundy comes back to Miami and ultimately dies (see earlier). Debra constantly figures out 90% of what is going on, except for the essential bit about how Dexter is involved and is killing all these people. This conceit ultimately undermines Debra as a character and is one of the hardest things for the show to come back from.  Just see the end of season 5 for this.  It was one time too many for me.

6. Dexter - Ok, so the show is not called Debra, but come on she is the second lead basically and the only other major constant in the program. But having her go to therapy and realise she is 'in love' with Dexter in Season 6 was the most polarising thing to do to this character.  I can see why the writers thought this was a logical end to the way that Debs felt about Dex and why she always put him first, but it basically cut the character off at the knees. But wait, there is more.  Not only is Debra 'in love' with Dexter but she finds our Dexter is a serial killer at the end of season 6, spends season 7 coming to terms with this and then tells Dexter that she is in love with him. Still more to come. He does not reciprocate in that way.  And just to push you over the edge on the amount of damage you can do to one character, season 7 ends with Debra shooting and killing her boss to save Dexter.  Ok.  So you think this will be all they do to her.  But season 8 ends with her coming back from all of this then DYING by Dexter's hands. So he was putting her out of her misery because she was brain dead after being wounded by a gunshot from the serial killer who was after Dexter, but he still kills her and takes her body to sea and drops her overboard where he puts all his victims. The indignity of it all. She is killed off because she pretty much just got in the way of the serial killer's revenge on Dexter and she becomes Dexter's latest casualty.      

PS -  I want to highlight how brilliant the actress Jennifer Carpenter does with this character. I think does a fantastic job and managed to make the most insane plot twists work. 

A rewatch of Carla Cametti PD

Originally aired on SBS 1 in 2008, this six part crime series set in the Italian community in Melbourne, Australia is a gem of a story.  Starring Diana Glenn as Carla Cametti, who has come back to Melbourne from a few years in Italy, and is running a private detective agency that usually deals with adultery and finding lost items.  She gets drawn into discovering the reason behind the death of a husband of an old school friend and begins to unravel the lies and secrets of the friends and family in the close knit Italian community she lives in.  Added to this, there is a new police detective, Luciano Gandolfi (Vince Colosimo), who has been sent down from Sydney to clean up the organised crime in Melbourne, who becomes an distraction and sometimes a hindrance for Carla.     

 

That is the plot, however it does not do justice to the level of tone and depth of the show. It is hard to find a crime show that has a a great sense of romantic byplay working seamlessly with the dark plot lines of murder and gangsters. The acting is wonderful, the scripts are very well written and the series looks beautiful and sensual. But the best part of the show is how it depicts friendships between women. Australians had another chance to watch it as it was re-shown on SBS this last month, if you are not from Australia, I recommend getting the DVD, it is well worth it. 

New Girl - A Classic Screwball Comedy

I have spent the last couple of months catching up on some TV series I have not had time to get into.  One of the shows recommended to me was New Girl.  There were a couple of things making me resistant.  It had been running for two seasons already, it is a sitcom, and it had very irritating marketing that tried to coin the phrase 'adorkable' to classify Zooey Deshanel's New Girl, Jess. It was way down on the list.  Then I started to get some recommendations, both from friends and from TV critics I like to read, so I gave it a go.

I zoomed through both seasons, laughing myself silly and even shedding a tear in the more poignant moments. Created by Liz Meriwether, this show is basically throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1930s for 30 minutes each week.  It has a very talented cast with great chemistry and some really insane story lines.  The mixture of great lines and some of the funniest slapstick is a testament to wonderful writing and some excellent execution.  This sitcom has invented its own drinking game, the concept of the douche-bag jar, had Elvis impersonators at a funeral, set up a great bathroom for a flat shared by three men and a woman and brought romance back to prime time sitcoms.

Here are some of the funniest moments: 

The Douche-Bag Jar

 

 True American Drinking Game

Luther - What Goes Around Comes Around

Luther created and written by Neil Cross and embodied by Idris Elba, sprung onto our screens in 2010.  The world of DCI John Luther could have been mistaken for another good British crime drama, but the taunt writing, great performances by the cast, especially Idris Elba and Ruth Wilson, and the patience of the plot to slowly build and squat in the moral ambiguity of the choices the characters were making, before exploding, made the first season great.   

The cat and mouse game between a killer and the cop has been seen many times, and Ruth Wilson's highly intelligent and cold blooded killer, Alice Morgan, squaring off against Luther made the first season a delight.  The second season focused on a completely different case, developing more of the cops on Luther's team as well as emphasising Luther's unusual approach and dogged determination.   It was fun, well written, but missing that 'Alice' element.  There was no one challenging Luther for the most intelligent person in the room.  Just a well written plot.    Well acted.   That is the burden of a creating a really great main character and an equally good nemesis, when it is not about them, the show changes.  Thankfully I will watch Idris Elba read a phone book he is so good.

This month, Neil Cross brings us the third and final season of Luther.  It mainly works because it brings the story back to where it began.  With Alice.  It is an enjoyable ending to a great set of characters and the back streets of London. If you are a fan of the show you will love it, if you haven't seen the first two seasons, I recommend blitzing them before you get to this season, otherwise you will be missing a lot. Thank you Mr Elba and Mr Cross for the show.