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2016 In Television

It’s a bit late for a Best of 2016, but what the hell, eh? A round-up of some of the most notable TV I watched for the first time this year.

Fargo Season 2

I was unconvinced by Season 2 for half its run. Not that it wasn’t good, but it felt less compelling than the first season or film. It’s not until past the midpoint that I ‘got’ it. Fargo season 2 is different to its predecessors, but that’s kind of the point. I still stand by some of my complaints – the villains aren’t as captivating as Martin Freeman’s Lester, or Billy Bob Thornton’s hypnotically evil Lorne Malvo, and the hero cop isn’t as warm and sharp as Allison Tolman’s Molly (or Frances McDormand from the film, but then nobody can match up to the Best Film Cop Ever). But they’re not meant to be, as this is about different kinds of people. It’s also not about Minnesota/North Dakota in the same lovingly parodical way, because they’ve already done that.

This time round, it’s not about a terrible person lurking under a mask of politeness and cowardice. This time the ‘Jerry’ is Peg, a possibly schizophrenic woman who stumbles into a bad situation, makes some mistakes, and tries to make the best of it. She messes up, she inadvertantly hurts someone, and she tries to get away with it. But all she really wants is to make a life for herself and her husband.

It makes for a very different tone. Previously, when the villainous protagonist suffered, they deserved it for their selfishness, recklessness, and cruelty. This time round, even the admonishment of the heroes leaves the viewer ambivalent. Where Jerry and Lester were stupid and monstrous loners who hated their wives, Peg has spent her life in a cage, simply because someone she loves liked it there. She’s a fuck-up and an oddball, but who among us isn’t?

Special note: Fargo is a very violent series, but even more so than the film, it’s violent in a realistic way. That is to say, the violence in Fargo, even when foreshadowed, is shocking, ugly, messy, and oddly undramatic. You may read about some of the things that happen to people and picture gratuitous torture porn, but Fargo has a unique way of condemning bloody murder by showing how grotesque and wrong it is when it suddenly comes into our lives.

The Expanse

Coming out of nowhere to blow away most sci-fi I’ve seen on tv outside Hollywood, The Expanse is a series I went in on totally blind, and suffered not a jot for it. I’m dimly aware that it’s based on a comic, which probably explains its novel-like pacing and a style of storytelling that most series have forgotten about in the wake of Game of Thrones and the rise of Netflix. Every episode matters in The Expanse, every one is necessary and moves things and characters tangibly along. It’s very much a Plot series over a Characters one – things and events are moving along towards a climax, and the disparate characters, many wholly ignorant of each other’s existence, are doing their best to figure out what it is and do something about it one way or another. This is a contrast to the too-common habit of scattering people about all over the place, then dicking around for anywhere between half a series to six years before bringing them together, by which time it just feels like dice-rolling fan service anyway.

But enough contrarian griping: The Expanse is an excellent series in its own right. A sort of space noir set largely in a mining colony, which is kind of reminiscent of, but carves out its own identity distinct from classic novels and 80s/90s touchstones like Blade Runner, Total Recall et al.

Narcos Season 2

It’s difficult to write about Narcos, and season two takes on a very different feel to the first. Partly there’s the sense that the first was experimental, and nobody really knew how it would pan out. The second is more focused on Escobar and his family, with narrator/protagonist Steve Murphy taking a back seat. While there was nothing wrong with Murphy, and the subplot of him becoming an abusive dick was fertile ground, it was a smart move to sideline him somewhat, as Wagner Moura gets to shine even more as the infamous kingpin.

Honestly though, this is one of those series where I don’t have anything useful or novel to say. It’s a shame there was less criticism of the American government and its idiotic Red Scare fanaticism, and it’s a shame that we won’t get to see more of Moura. But I’m impressed at how compelling the story remained, how complex its characterisation and tone. Escobar is and isn’t a monster. He’s not unsympathetic but nor is he unduly romanticised. The series and narrator alike both condemn and humanise him, which is no easy task, and it also makes no bones about the corruption and abuse carried out by the authorities – including the narrator – in his apprehension. That too is depicted with the ambivalence that anyone ought to feel. Was it right to cut a deal with these killers? Was it the lesser evil to hurt one person to stop several more? Is it ever necessary or worth it for agents of the law to break the rules or turn a blind eye? The viewer can make up their own mind. Fact is, it happened, and Narcos is about that.

Oh, and the LĂ­mon and Maritza subplot… jesus god. Season one was excellent, but I never expected Narcos to make me cry.

Daredevil Season 2

I wrote about this at the time, but the more I think about it the more it makes me cringe. A huge plummet in credibility for the series that established it to begin with.

Luke Cage

Ih. I wanted to like Luke Cage more than I did. That applies to the series and protagonist alike: while Mike Colter come across as naturally likeable, the lead character is hard to garner any strong feelings for. This goes double when he’s beset on all sides by talented, complex, badass women like Simone Missick’s Misty Knight or Rosario Dawson, who as Claire continues to hold Marvel’s efforts together perfomatively as well as narratively.

Like Daredevil, it’s a series doomed to be undone by the necessity of including the more idiotic elements of the comic book. Mariah and Shades make for excellent villains, but several characters are killed off just as they’re starting to get interesting, usually to make way for a weak but loud main villain so ridiculous that even side characters are taking the piss. There’s an early scene where a villain spontaneously produces a rocket launcher to kill an unarmed, unaware civilian that invites comparison to Looney Tunes.

Worse still, we spend most of the series waiting for this, as early episodes largely just kill time as the invincible hero kind of pootles around quarter-arsedly, or treat situations as dire when everyone already knows the hero is invincible.

Luke Cage matters because he’s a proud black man in modern America, surrounded by smart, brave, compassionate women of colour, and the series reflects this. It is explicitly about the struggle for the soul of a black neighbourhood, filled with references to black music and history and reverence for civil rights heroes of old. Even the villains mostly have roots in defiance and struggles for independence and power, and this informs their relationship to Cage – even this small black community is not the uniform block of “the black people” it’s often portrayed as, and has its own internal struggles regardless of the opinions of the rest of the country, or even the city. As a white British person my opinion is frankly irrelevant, but I do feel like this series could have done more, and given the events of recent years, copped out in its limp commentary on police brutality. However the series is received, we need a lot more heroes who aren’t generic white Americans, and I’m glad Marvel finally stepped up to try.

Like Jessica Jones though, the main problem is that it’s doomed to form part of the Defenders series or film or whatever, a project that will inevitably water down everything that made Luke and Jessica interesting. And as for Iron Fist, christ. Even if I wanted to see Supercracker versus the Magical Evil Asians, Daredevil did it already.

Jessica Jones

Important but highly flawed. A series mostly about women, about abuse and consent and a manipulative villain who gaslights and charms and plays innocent and plays the martyr? Yes, goddamn do we need more of this. Jessica Jones broke important ground (you need only look at the people who insist that Kilgrave wasn’t a villain, for whom there are not enough faces or palms on Earth), but its first episode is by far its best, and most of its run is a complete waste of time even if you ignore the screamingly obvious fact that you need to just kill the fucker Jess, for christ’s sake.

The latter can be justified as a meta-commentary; half the point of the series is that for all her strength, Jessica’s abuse has left her traumatised and one effect of that is making shitty decisions when faced with the man who abused her. But the series as a whole just kind of dicks around with meaningless subplots for hours, and descends into a series of cheap, violent set pieces brightened only by the appearance of Rosario Dawson.

A second season could be interesting, but its best plot is finished, and as mentioned above, the rest of the B List Superhero Squad are boring as and I have zero interest in their future.

Game of Thrones Season 6

After the excruciating season 5, GoT was forced to spend half its run this year just recovering its stride. The result is a series that’s still enjoyable, but has become a very different and mostly disappointing beast making a noisy histrionic splash in extremely shallow waters. Its biggest dramatic moments were skilfully filmed but utterly hollow and often roaringly stupid: the long-touted “battle of the bastards”, for example, was a tour de force of excellent technical work rendered worthless by abysmal writing.

Largely a victim of its own success, there’s very little its creators can do, but it is guaranteed an audience of sunken cost fallacers, and will continue to enjoy fawning 10/10 scores from lazy critics who would have panned it six or seven years ago because it wasn’t fashionable.

Dark Matter

I am going to write about this in detail, but for now: YES. I enjoyed Season 1 a lot, and Season 2 has some issues, but is throwing its all into its characters, and successfully so thanks to great performances from Jodelle Ferland, Anthony Lemke, and the brilliant Zoie Palmer, who has stolen my small flinty heart.

Another science fiction series based on a comic, it has a more character-driven feel by design. Six people wake up on a spaceship with no memory, bound for a small colonial planet for unknown reasons in a galaxy they can remember little about. The first series dealt mainly with the immediate dangers they were in, then the mystery of who they used to be. This year’s effort tells us what happened after that cruel cliffhanger, which because I am nice I will not spoil. The fallout from that is tidied up a little too neatly, the shuffling around of characters will ruffle some feathers, and the whole Space Japan Likes Swords And Honour And All That Shit thing is more than wearing thin. But for me its strong characters and their chemistry are enough to outweigh those faults. Especially the android. I lied earlier: it’s not the series I’ll write about, it’s the android. She is the best.

Oh, and one of the guys they’re fighting, and therefore almost certainly going to kill, looks like Chris Martin. I will watch 50 series of Dark Matter if that’s what it takes to see him get spaced.

Stranger Things

Good but ultimately unimportant.

Yes, that’s all I’m saying. You liked it? Well of course, it’s good. You didn’t? Well that’s fine, it’s ultimately unimportant. We have just created the ultimate review.

I will say this, though: Firstly, Lucas is a hero and is gonna have a horrible time when his shithead friends start dating horrible women. Secondly, Winona Ryder got to play pretty teenagers in the 80s and now she gets to play pretty 40-somethings in the 80s. If her agent is reading: I will help her bury the bodies if that’s what it takes. Email me.

Orange is the New Black

Defying my expectations somewhat, OITNB is still great, and even succeeded this year in reigning in the highly tedious Piper enough to make her subplot tolerable. Its strongest suit is still its willingness to engage with social issues more so than most big series dare. And of course the cast, who despite a surfeit of talent are unquestionably headlined by the brilliant Samira Wiley.

Where it falls down is a little less tangible, but partly it’s the sense that some things are being strung out – Laverne Cox is nowhere to be seen, while it’s unclear why Piper is still in prison at all – and some dramatic scenes were over-sensationalised and felt a little false. There’s nothing this year matching the subtle, heartfelt soliloquy from Taystee regarding her newfound faith, and several shots, most notably the very final one of the season, fell with a resounding clunk. I’m still looking foward to more, though.

Brooklyn Nine Nine

Brooklyn Nine Nine is an excellent series that I’ll write about in detail in future. However, while still very strong, it didn’t quite make it this year because the newest seasons (3 and 4) haven’t been as good. If you’ve not watched any of it, however, Seasons 1 and 2 would be Comedy of the Year in almost any contest.

Spartacus

I stand by my review. Spartacus starts feebly but soon picks up, and develops into a gleefully melodramatic shag-and-stab-fest. It’s Rome with too much coffee, 300 without the nastiness. While it doesn’t match up with some of the incredible TV of the last few years, it’s by far the most sheer fun I’ve had watching a series all year.

Power

I just started watching Power. You should too.

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Right, that’s 2016 done then. And thank fucking christ for that. It’s been a great year for television and an unspeakably awful, frustrating year for almost everything else, so I sincerely wish for all of you that 2017 is a year of atrocious TV. Because that’s how it works.

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Spartacus: Blood and Sand review

Television’s a funny format sometimes. You get your pilot, and if you’re lucky it convinces someone to pay up, which frees you up to make the completely different series you actually wanted to make. Spartacus: Blood and Sand is somewhere in that region, because it starts out a bit crap.

Produced and broadcast by Starz (me neither) in 2010 and predating Game of Thrones by over a year, it instead took its cues from 300 and Gladiator, and boy does it show. The pilot relates the betrayal and capture of the eponymous Thracian not-yet-a-gladiator at the hands of treacherous Roman general Claudius Glaber, and does so with a near embarassing desire to mimic Zack Snyder’s ultra-stylised stabfest. Elaborate sex and slow-to-fast-to-slow motion violence and oddly stark backgrounds team up with cheap CGI and a simplistic narrative to give the obvious impression that the series will be cheesy, mindless popcorn fodder. Which can be fine!

After that uncomfortable start, there follow a few episodes of swords-and-tits fluff as Spartacus is sold to a gladiatorial school owned by the ambitious Batiatus (John Hannah). It’s slightly rubbish but entertaining, but just as I was settling in for more of the same, something odd happened: The series found itself.

Several episodes in it suddenly became apparent that the directors had whittled down the hollow excesses of Snyderism and pushed the “rehash the plot of Gladiator” concept aside. The narrative acknowledges the impossibility of a common slave even encountering, much less killing the distant general who set his torment in motion, and instead scales down to focus on the many dramas going on in the house of Batiatus. Given time to adjust to the strange syntax of the script (among other quirks, characters drop most articles and alter tenses to approximate Latin grammar, a curious effect that will grow on you if given the chance) and recalibrate their standing in the plot, the cast visibly relax into their roles and let rip with the acting. While John Hannah is clearly having fun positively devouring the scenery, the unlikely pairing with Lucy Lawless as his wife Lucretia gives her the opportunity to smoulder delicious evil. Meanwhile, the tragically late Andy Whitfield treads a fine line as Spartacus, butting heads with the honour-obsessed champion Crixus (Manu Bennett) and struggling to reconcile his plans with his predicament as the other gladiators mostly disdain him as an outsider. He’s not the most complex character, but he’s far more than the generic single-minded Revenge Guy he could have been, and only gets more so with time. This is a process echoed by much of the cast, most notably Peter Mensah’s towering, glowering Doctore, also fixated on honour but gradually revealed to have dimensions beyond cracking a whip. Honestly, the casting is top rate throughout. It’s tempting to list most of the main characters, as most grow into a comfortable niche, and the gaps left by many, many deaths are filled with thought and care.

Instead of a generic hero rising from the bottom, surrounded by tokenistic support characters, Blood And Sand leaves Ridley Scott behind mid-season and begins to court 2005’s sorely under-appreciated Rome. What we’re left with is an equally dramatic and silly melodrama charting the rivalries and illicit romances of slaves and masters, while Lucretia and her questionable friends scheme and snide, and we even root for her and Batiatus in their efforts to rise in station, not despite but because he resorts to brutal murder at the slightest provocation, while simultaneously manipulating his slaves to get the most out of them. They make excellent villains, enjoyable in every scene, so that we’re not sorry they’re dead but are sad to see them go when the inevitable happens. And my god, does it ever happen. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say “Spartacus leads a slave revolt”, but I can think of no other series that had the stones to end by having all the poor people rise up and slaughter all the rich people. Make no mistake, it is brutal. And it is glorious. For all their complexity, Blood and Sand makes no bones about it: it is messy and ugly butchery, but these people, even the ‘innocent’ bystanders, absolutely have it coming.

The violence. Oh god, the violence. Spartacus can be easily mistaken for a patronising pantomime of sex and violence, but by god does it do it well. Even after the poor opening episodes settle down (although it takes a couple of series for the effects to look less cheap), almost every episode is a bloodbath. Gladiatoral fights are depicted with liberal use of slow motion, gouting CGI blood, and absurdly over the top leaps and flips and flying kicks. The man himself roars every time he lands a blow, almost everyone attacks by leaping in the air with a sword and landing it in someone’s face, and why have a fighter fall over when they can be flipped end over end instead? It’s loud, it’s ostentatious, it’s silly, and it’s bloody great. Even my slight disdain for slow motion doesn’t change much. The choreography is solid, the camera work is always clear and creative (all four seasons feature dynamic scene transitions as a matter of course, some of which are genuinely entertaining in their own right), and while the plot leaves 300 behind permanently, the fighting never forgets. This works surprisingly well, and means we can enjoy the carnage despite ourselves, because the damn thing’s got its narrative hooks in us.

There is of course much drama centred on the plight of slaves, but instead of mere death, the real cruelty is in their helplessness. Orders given cannot be refused, no matter how unfair (interestingly true even of Batiatus when faced with demands from a social superior, and a major reason why he’s sympathetic despite doing terrible things. Though wrathful and murderous, there’s little indiscriminate sadism in him, and notably, one of his most crucial, reviled acts was an honest mistake). The utter indifference of the upper classes in particular is well done. They don’t hate the slaves or lower classes so much as simply not think about them, and for their part, the latter have mostly swallowed their society’s dogma whole.

It presents an interesting duality, an inherent conflict of two philosophies. The arena-centred plotlines bring to mind a sport film more than an abolitionist tract, and every ring of roman society sings the virtues of honour and glory in the arena. With all the elaborately stylised fights, raucous crowds, and enthusiastic orators it’s difficult not to get caught up in the excitement even as you see the ordeals these victims of a horrific system are put through. Blood and Sand may not be a powerful social commentary, but that it manages to convey what was exciting and appealing about the arena and rightly condemn its inherently atrocious nature is no small feat.

There’s no need to handwring or rely on our modern ideas of innate justice and freedom. No self-congratulatory ritual of the anachronistic hero teaching the primitive ancients our superior modern values. Spartacus shows gladiators and slaves buying into their society’s values, but then subverts them on its own terms: thus, rather than the system being bad because it’s immoral to our society, the gladiators come to measure their masters by their own proclaimed standards, and expose them as corrupt hypocrites soiling even their contemporary ideas of honour. Good stuff.

Then there’s the sex, which is often directly preceded by or intercut with extraneous scenes of combat. Like the violence, it could be tacky (and starts out somewhat so) but rises above it by being kind of self aware about it. The crowds like their arena and the toffs like their orgies, and we superior moderners can tut and tsk at them while we enjoy some simulated violence and constant, constant sex. It’s quite the shaggingest series I’ve ever seen, with every episode finding an excuse for some mostly, but not exclusively hetero trains and tunnels, and many featuring multiple orgies and bawdy brothel backgrounds. The gladiators, of course, are all ultra-toned, meticulously waxed hunky hunks rather than the fattish stocky types you’d likely see, but it actually outdoes even Rome in representation of gay men. It’s no beacon, but the small handful of romances among the gay gladiators are treated much like any other relationship, with affection and sex and childish arguments, and absolutely no conflict arising from homophobia even when facing villainous characters. And people have pubes! This matters, damn it.

I could go on – I’ve only covered the one series, and each of the following 3 is comparably strong. The final season charts the doomed Third Servile War, and bears particular mention as it proves smarter than most rival series (looking at you, Game of Thrones) by presenting the rebels’ nemesis Crassus as no villain at all. Instead of the demonic slave-torturing monster most works would choose as a foil to Spartacus, Cassus is far more dangerous because he’s nice to his slaves. He genuinely respects them (insofar as is possible while maintaining their slavery), building monuments to one and requiring the consent of another (of questionable validity outside fiction, but that’s a conversation for another day). He is, essentially, a man who represents the honourable ideal of Roman slavery as an institution, and as such is a far better foil to the abolitionist rebellion than a slave-eating sadist. This is still, of course, intercut with extreme violence, sex, colourful swear-blasphemy, and yet more gory massacres from our heroes, so don’t go thinking it’s changed on you. Sometimes you can have it all.

All in all, then: Spartacus is well worth sticking with through a shaky start for a delightful blend of demi-historical melodrama and swords-and-tits indulgence. And it’s finished too, so you won’t have to worry about the prospect of another season spent skipping ahead past yet another dreary waste of time with Daenerys Whiteburden, thirty-eight millionth of her name.

Every season of Spartacus is currently available on Netflix in the UK. If you live anywhere else, I can’t help you because apparently we don’t live in the same reality anymore. Sorry. By way of recompense, please accept this complicated jam.

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