What I’ve been watching (May 3-9)

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Sometimes I’m asked how I decide what to review on this blog, and the answer’s pretty simple – it’s whatever I happen to have watched, read, seen or listened to that week. I never choose to watch something purely to review it, which at least means that everything I review here is something that I actually wanted to see and why a negative post is usually a function of genuine disappointment rather than because it’s not my sort of thing in the first place.

But I don’t review everything I see/hear/watch in a week – I do have a life, strange as that seems to me as well I’m sure as to you. I cherry-pick the things I have something (new) to say rather than just churning out the same comments on an ongoing series for the sake of it. However, I thought as a one-off experiment, what I’d do here in this Very Special Post is run through the disturbingly long list of things that I have watched on the screen in the last seven days just to put a little context around the posts that did make it to the big time so far in May …

Friday, May 3

Thriller: Murder Motel (DVD): I’ve carried on watching the boxset of this 1970s anthology series since writing reviews of the first dozen instalments that I saw; this particular late-run offering starts promisingly with a riff off Hitchcock’s Psycho but quickly falls apart. Poor plotting, a bunch of bad guys who mess up at every opportunity, a sequence where dead bodies spill out of every hiding place like an Abbott and Costello film and a lead actress who appears to be completely smashed the entire time makes this one a rare complete dud.

The Mentalist (Channel 5): Although I haven’t reviewed the show since its season 3 finale, I’m still watching this undemanding detective show which is nearly at the end of its fifth season. Simon Baker’s easy-going charm as Patrick Jane is the main strength of the series, but this episode was largely an excuse to concentrate on two of the other regular characters – Rigsby and Van Pelt. Even so, a nice twist in the plot stops this light-hearted froth from becoming total flimflam – just! – and with just two episodes to go till the finale it’s likely that the spectre of Red John will now once again turn things darker and meatier for a spell.

NCIS (Fox): Even though I’ve watched this show since its very first episode, I’m still at a loss to explain why it’s now regularly the best-rated show in the US. That’s not to denigrate it: it’s got a great ‘family’ ensemble and a nice line in gentle humour, and the stories are always solid although in this particular episode (about a former Navy serviceman suspected of being a Washington DC serial killer) I did see the ‘twist’ and the responsible party a mile off. Despite being well into its groove after ten series, the show still resists sitting back on its laurels and while not all the episodes in this run have been vintage, there have been some genuine excellent ones that make renewal for year 11 thoroughly welcome news.

Da Vinci’s Demons (Fox)already reviewed in full.

Saturday, May 4

Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror (BBC1)already reviewed in full.

Arne Dahl (BBC4): Having reviewed the first part of “The Blinded Man,” I enjoyed the conclusion to it very much and felt that it certainly rewarded my faith in it. The second two-part story, “Bad Blood”, got off to a slightly rocky start with the team spending the entire first half sitting around, twiddling their thumbs and indulging in soap operatics while waiting for the main plot about a US serial killer to kick in; fortunately it was worth waiting for, even though one key ‘twist’ was right from the pile marked ‘bleeding obvious’. The current story, “To The Top Of The Mountain,” is better balanced in terms of investigation/personal lives but the case feels rather small-scale for the supposed Swedish ‘A’ Team and more like a regular case of Taggart transferred from Glasgow to Stockholm; right up to the jolting final scene, at least. Still very watchable for all that.

United States of Television – America in Primetime (BBC2): I’m not sure I’m learning anything particularly new from this four-part documentary on the changing social norms of the US as depicted on primetime television in everything from Father Knows Best to Modern Family, but the vintage clips of some favourite shows of the last 50 years are a joy and the assembled talking heads are a staggeringly big name line-up of the very best talent to have worked on the small screen in the last five decades.

Sunday, May 5

Motorsport: IndyCar (ESPN), MotoGP (BBC2) and BTCC (ITV4): Sunday is sports day for me, and the best of the bunch this week was a thrilling IndyCar race from Sao Paulo. By comparison, the motorcycling was rather tame right up until a controversial final corner clash between two of the local Spanish favourites. I’m enjoying both series while I have them, since both move to the new BT Sport channel soon and I’ll not be able to continue with them. Meanwhile the BTCC coverage is extraordinarily good: considering how ITV have pretty much failed with every motorsports series they’ve ever covered, it’s amazing that their six hours of coverage of touring cars is so quietly wonderful. Anchored by the ever-reliable Steve Rider, it’s a great way of spending a Sunday afternoon.

Dexter (Fox): I’ve been a big fan of the friendly neighbourhood serial killer ever since it began, and it’s still an incredibly intelligent, well-made series with Michael C Hall just brilliant in the title role but kudos also for Jennifer Carpenter as his sister Debra and Lauren Vélez also particularly strong in season 7 as Captain LaGuerta; Ray Stevenson has been impressive as Eastern European mafia hardman Isaak Sirko with a revelatory secret of his own, and Yvonne Strahovski has shone as serial poisoner Hannah McKay. The problem with this latest run is that while there’s some great highs, there’s no overarching theme or story: individual plot lines stop or start almost at random, sometimes very suddenly as though the writers just got bored and wanted to move on. A little too much self-reverential reflection into the show’s past is also creeping in ahead of the final series 8.

Monday, May 6

Arrow (Sky One): One of the strongest new shows of the current TV season, which gives a rather irrelevant DC Comics superhero a whole new level of greatness with Lost-style flashbacks and a Batman-esque dark vigilante feel. The show has even improved on its early episodes as Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) has let more people into his posse ensuring that the whole thing is bubbling away to a good climax. It’s also lovely to see Colin Salmon back on deck after his break for Strictly Come Dancing.

Grimm (UK Watch): Now solidly into its groove after a less than promising start, this show looks good and has had some more interesting and original stories in its second season. A move to give protagonist Nick (David Giuntoli) some superpowers and to give his formerly blank love interest Juliette (Bitsie Tulloch) a memory wipe, together with revelations about his boss Captain Renard (Sasha Roiz), have given the show more interest and inventive energy in its sophomore season.

Criminal Minds (Sky Living): Now in its eight season (and with a ninth apparently on the cusp of being confirmed) this show feels a bit stuck in the past especially with the likes of Hannibal muscling into the criminal profiling scene. The show is at its least successful with multi-episode arcs and this season has had two – one with Reid’s (Matthew Gray Gubler) mysterious lover, and now with a psychopath stalking the BAU team and replicating crimes they have already solved. Trouble is, the stand-alone episodes aren’t particularly memorable either and some of them stray too close to a voyeuristic nastiness along the lines of Saw, the kind of thing that led original star Many Patinkin to walk out and later decry the whole production.

Major Crimes (Universal): The strange thing here is how seamlessly this show has followed on from its predecessor, The Closer. In almost all respects (and virtually all of its principal cast) it’s business as usual rather than a reboot or a reimagination. It’s slightly less kooky now that Kyra Sedgwick has departed and former recurring special guest star Mary McDonnell has taken over the lead spot as no-nonsense Captain Raydor, which might make it more mainstream and successful; certainly the new show is slightly more to my liking than its occasionally saccharine forebear.

Tuesday, May 7

Elementary (Sky Living): It’s no Sherlock and it can occasionally be a little silly or derivative (one minor plot line this week was nicked straight from the climax of Homeland season 2) but I’m enjoying the US take on the Holmes mythos. Jonny Lee Miller is putting in a fine eccentric performance pleasingly completely different from Benedict Cumberbatch’s take while Lucy Liu is doing great work as Watson, a role that can often be rather thankless. Now that Watson is no longer a drug rehab worker but has instead become a full-fledged apprentice consulting detective, the dynamic between the two has stepped up a notch and it is one of my favourite watches of the week.

Hannibal (Sky Living)already reviewed in full.

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (Channel 5): This old forensics warhorse has been given new life by the casting of Ted Danson in the lead role, so that even an old-fashioned ‘locked room’ mystery comes off very nicely indeed. It was good to hear original star William Petersen providing a voice cameo at the end, too. However, some demerit marks for an opening sequence that doesn’t actually correspond with the end solution – that’s cheating, guys!

Dallas (Channel 5): I kind of stuck with this out of loyalty to the original show and also to see out how they handled the death of the irreplaceable star, Larry Hagman. All things considered they did very well – in fact, the show has been finding its feet more of late and learning to pace itself for a marathon rather than a 100m sprint all the time. This was the second season finale and it felt very much as though the show wasn’t optimistic of getting renewed without JR around anymore, so they ensured all the bad guys got their just deserts and the Ewings emerged neatly victorious and lived happy every after. Except now a third season has indeed been ordered, so the peace and harmony can’t last …

White Collar (Alibi): Basically an updated sequel to Steven Spielberg’s film Catch Me If You Can, here a notorious conman (Neil Caffrey, played by Matt Bomer) serves out his sentence by working with a super-straight FBI agent (Peter Burke, played by Tim DeKay.) It’s one of those fun, stylish and slick shows that coasts along on the charisma of its cast (Caffrey’s cohort Mozzie played by Willie Garson is a particularly effective show-stealer) and is a pleasant undemanding watch at the end of the day.

Wednesday, May 8

Defiance (SyFy): I recently reviewed the pilot episode and don’t have much to add. It’s shaping up nicely so far, putting its world-building blocks in place at an assured pace, and hasn’t done anything off-puttingly wrong so far.

Bones (Sky Living): The early seasons of this show were big favourites of mine, but the shine has rather gone off it in recent times. It’s still perfectly amiable but it’s been a long time since it was remotely believable and these days it seems to be aiming for a weird mix of gore and kook. This week’s episode was also an example of a worrying tendency to ‘worthiness’ of late, taking on the topic of child soldiers, torture and mutilation among refugees from Sierra Leone (another recent episode marked the anniversary of 9/11 with everyone getting similarly emotional.) Unfortunately the end result was more admirable and laudable than it was successful as entertainment, making it rather like a modern day incarnation of the 1970s Quincy, M.E. series which went much the same campaigning way. (Coincidentally, Jack Klugman’s nephew Brian has just joined the series as a recurring character.)

Castle (Alibi): The show has managed to successfully transition its lead stars from being in a flirty ‘unresolved sexual tension’ non-relationship to being a full-blown couple without losing the inherent comedy and humour of the set-up. Even so, for me it’s the ‘sidekicks’ Ryan (Seamus Dever) and Esposito (Jon Huertas) who continue to be the under-appreciated highlights of the series. Sadly this week other than a bit of banter about a scary nun the duo were largely out of the action, which focussed instead on an improbable story in which novelist Castle (Nathan Fillion) and detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) contrived to get stuck in the middle of a New York trouble spot apparently without a single working telephone or means of transport available to them, as a local crime boss closed in on the neurotic witness they’re trying to protect. Even by the standards of a series that doesn’t go hard for believability, this was an episode that swan-dived off the balcony of credibility and died in a splatter on the pavement below. Hoping for better next week.

10 O’Clock Live (Channel 4): Much criticised when originally launched, I happen to rather like this one-hour topical take on the week’s news. Jimmy Carr kicks off with some outrageous stand-up designed to get the audience gasping with an affront to good taste, with Charlie Brooker following up with more deeply observed satirical rants. Unfortunately the rest of the show seems to have been significantly pared back this run, with David Mitchell appearing to have been relegated to just chairing shouty discussions between studio guests (this time featuring the reliably barking George Galloway on whether protest parties like UKIP and Respect will ever amount to anything) and Lauren Lavergne given the thankless task of trying to keep the show on track and reign in her three co-stars during one of their numerous round-table get-togethers between blocks.

Thursday, May 9

Murder on the Home Front (ITV)already reviewed in full.

Suits (Dave): I do like a good legal drama, and the fact that a mention of LA Law pops up in the season 2 finale just makes me like Suits all the more. The first run of episodes concentrated on slacker Mike Ross (a delightful Patrick J Adams) blagging his way into a job as apprentice to preening hotshot attorney Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht) at a top NY law firm, while season 2 has been more about various power plays and takeover bids for the company that have allowed the rest of the cast some good storylines to sink their teeth into as well. Even if the legal detail flies well over your head (as it does mine), there’s enough wheeling and dealing to enjoy and the emotional drama is always very engaging and accessible.

Being Human USA (UK Watch): I reviewed the first three episodes at the start of the month, so there’s little to add about this week’s fourth instalment. I was wondering whether the US version would stick to the UK template for a big development in ghost Sally’s backstory. For a time it seemed not because the casting of her bereaved fiancé seemed to suggest otherwise, but sure enough the plot I remembered from the British show was dutifully and very well played out. It continues to be a impressively solid, faithful and likeable remake so far.

Russell Howard’s Good News (BBC3): The former Mock the Week star has certainly found his niche with this topical show that mixes funny clips from the week’s news and television with Howard’s own stand-up and sketch humour that has become BBC3’s reliably too-rated show. BBC3 is the channel intended to find that legendary ‘youth’ demographic, so anyone older will likely find this a raucous and borderline-tasteless show – it certainly does sail fairly close to the edge at times with what it can get away with. That it does so is mainly by having a surprisingly moral foundation to its excoriating humour (the sequence on Stuart Hall will have you either cheering or recoiling or both at the same time depending on individual sensibilities, but you have to admire its guts at including such contentious material in this day and age in the first place) and the fact that the each episode ends with a piece of heart-warming ‘good news’ gives it extra points in the bank.

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