QuickTakes: Arne Dahl S2, The Walking Dead S6, Fargo S2, Arrow S4, The Flash S2, Empire S2, American Horror Story Hotel, The Last Kingdom
It’s that time of year when the television schedules burst back into life and are packed with new series of shows, both old favourites returning for a new run and a few unfamiliar faces trying to make their initial mark. In fact there are so many such shows cascading onto the networks at the moment that just trying to watch them all is a practical impossibility, let alone trying to keep up with in terms of penning reviews.
All of which means it’s time for one of those bumper ‘combo’ posts of QuickTakes wherein a selection of the new shows I’ve been watching in the last week get a single paragraph before we have to move on to the next. Hopefully that’s still long enough to get the gist of things. Well, they are long paragraphs after all!
Arne Dahl S2 E1-2
I really enjoyed the first run of this rather curiously named slice of Nordic Noir – Arne Dahl is not a character in the show but in fact the real life pen name of Jan Arnald, the author of the Intercrime series of novels detailing the work of Sweden’s fictional A-Team investigation unit. With the series being comprised of adaptations of Arnald’s hefty books, the stories end up having a more complex and involved feel to them than many similar TV shows, which these days tend to be far too streamlined, polished and tailored in order to suit their 90 minute running slots that they often lack much sense of life or surprise. By contrast, with Arne Dahl you can be assured that there will be at least two or three distinct plot lines woven into the main case. The show’s other distinguishing feature is the presence of a genuine ensemble of seven or eight equally weighted characters (unlike most shows with one or two clear leads and a supporting background cast to add occasional texture) – and moreover, these characters have real-life distractions going on around them in terms of career or personal matters that aren’t there just to tie back into this week’s case or overarching theme but are in fact truly distracting, making the overall mise en scène of the show refreshingly different from the herd of crime shows to be found on our screens. Alas, this second run of ten episodes sees two of the original characters dropped and a third one recast with a new actor which rather takes the shine off its return. It remains one of my favourite entries into the Nordic Noir genre, however.
Arne Dahl continues on BBC Four on Saturdays at 9pm.
The Walking Dead S6 E1-2
Just when you think The Walking Dead can’t get any better, it somehow finds a whole new level and stops you dead in your tracks in order to make you go “wow”, which is quite an achievement for a show entering its six season. In the feature-length first episode of the new run, co-written by executive producer Scott Gimple, we find our heroes in the middle of a complex operation to tackle the biggest hoard of zombie walkers ever seen in the show – thousands of them right on the doorstep of our group’s latest sanctuary, the model community of Alexandria. A pleasingly complex structure sees this present day danger counterpointed with quieter monochrome flashbacks adding personal significance to what’s going on and filling in the gaps in the narrative since the end of season five, while also bedding in new regular Morgan – actually a returning character from the first series, played with brilliant understatement by British actor Lennie James late of Critical and Line of Duty. Then there’s a total change in the second episode as Alexandria comes under real-time attack, not from walkers but from a human group of berserkers just out to kill anyone and everyone that they can find. That assault forces Carol (Melissa McBride) to switch from her recent Susie Homemaker disguise into the Terminator vigilante mode first seen in the season 5 opener “No Sanctuary”: she is quite my favourite character (and actor) in the show but boy, when she gets into this sort of zone she’s probably the most frightening person on any television show out there – and that includes all the scary zombies and berserkers! She really is a sight to see as she shoots, cuts, stabs and slices her way through the quiet streets of the township; and so is the show, which when it’s on form like these two episodes is absolutely one of the best and most thrilling things on the screen at the moment. That is, if you have the stomach (and guts, and intestines, and liver…) for it.
The Walking Dead continues on Fox on Mondays at 9pm.
Fargo S2 E1
We’re getting a lot of anthology series on television at the moment, and while this allows the creative team the ability to keep things fresh by reinventing the show every year there’s always the danger than each season’s reboot will fall flat on its face: yes, True Detective season 2, I’m looking at you when I say that. Fortunately the second season of Fargo adroitly avoids that fate and does a good job in starting things up anew while keeping many of the themes and stylings that made the first season such an unexpected and total success. Once again, the inciting incident is an eruption of bloody violence allied to a sudden random accident, all taking place in the middle of nowhere. The rest of the season is tasked with following the ripples of these events through the surrounding North Dakota community and in particular its effect on the ‘Minnesota Nice’ residents. Just as there was between the 1996 Coen Brothers movie and season one, there is a little more extra connective tissue than usual in that the main character of state trooper Lou Solverson (played here by Patrick Wilson) is a younger version of the recurring part played last year by Keith Carradine; in one very cute early domestic scene we even see his baby daughter Molly bouncing on her mother’s knee, knowing that she will grow up to be one of the stars of season one as played by Allison Tolman. So far so good then, and it’s clear that writer/creator Noah Hawley has once again managed to set things up very smartly. However it’s hard to overlook the fact that there aren’t any instantly compelling characters to match Lorne Malvo, Lester Nygaard and Molly from last year; and despite stars like Wilson, Ted Danson, Jean Smart and Kirsten Dunst there’s simply no one with the magnetic draw of Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman or indeed Tolman. While far from being True Detective-level disaster, Fargo’s sophomore outing simply feels slightly diminished from what went before and lacks the instant sense of addiction that the first run so brilliantly pulled off. A very odd opening sequence (a ‘fake outtake’ from a 1950s black-and-white studio Western B-movie) and a bizarre Close Encounters of the Third Kind interlude midway through also make me feel slightly uneasy as through the show is straining a little too hard and at risk of going off the rails, while its constant need to evoke period (it’s set in 1979) also quickly becomes a little wearing.
Fargo continues on Mondays on Channel 4 at 10pm.
The Flash S2 and Arrow S4 E1-2
The two DC superhero series The Flash and Arrow return in matching weekday early evening time slots and pick up exactly where they left off last season. In the former case, that’s excellent news: The Flash was probably my favourite single new show of the 2014-15 season with its infectious sense of fun and a charming lead performance from Grant Gustin together with inventive storylines and excellent FX. It seems that the show is well able to sustain the quality again this year, replacing concluded storylines and departing characters with a whole new set-up involving the threat stemming from multiple parallel Earths which changes the game and heightens the stakes no end. Unfortunately in the case of Arrow, ‘more of the same’ is less of a recommendation: I long ago tired of its parallel flashback structure and moreover of its overall dark and grim outlook which seemingly never tires of putting the major characters up in each other’s faces at the first opportunity. Initially it seemed as though the show – like its lead character played by Stephen Amell – were going to find a different, lighter way way of doing things and become more upbeat, but that resolve quickly dissipated and it’s back to the same old tone. Moreover it seems the storylines themselves are folding in and repeating old ground as well, and frankly I’m beginning to get rather tired of it – although that said, the show does boast the best and most viscerally thrilling fight scenes and stunt work on television. Overall it may just be another symptom of my mounting ‘superhero ennui’ caused by an excess of comic book-inspired TV series and movies swamping the screens at the moment, and the situation is hardly going to get any better when a third member of the DC line-up takes up residence in the same time slot on Thursdays from next week with Supergirl flying onto our screens. What with Gotham, Agents of SHIELD, Daredevil and even Agent Carter also currently all in production not to mention the Marvel Cinematic Universe pumping out more non-stop blockbusters on a pre-programmed basis for the next ten years, we’re surely a long way past ‘peak superhero’ and in serious need for a drastic culling of the herd. Television-wise, I’d be happy to see the back of all but The Flash and Agent Carter – although admittedly the jury is still out on Supergirl until it débuts, and I really shouldn’t pre-judge Daredevil until I actually get to watch it!
The Flash continues on Tuesdays and the Arrow on Wednesdays on Sky One at 8pm,
Empire S2 E2
I loved the first series of Empire – a spiritual successor to the great glitzy over-the-top prime time soap operas of the 1980s like Dallas and Dynasty, in this case featuring a power struggle for control of a global hip hop music and entertainment company. Unfortunately something felt very wrong about the first episode of season 2 and it was quickly clear that it had said and done all it had planned to do in its first 12 episodes with its inspired King Lear structure, and now has absolutely no idea what it was supposed to do next other than “more of the same! Bigger! Louder! More!” The show was never subtle or slow in the first place, but now we get a situation where things change so rapidly and nonsensically that within about 20 minutes I completely failed to care about what we going on. Characters that were delicious arch enemies in the first series like Cookie and Anika are now inexplicably working together in a marriage of convenience; whereas Jamal – the one truly sympathetic and appealing character of the first run – has now become a hard, nasty piece of work corrupted by his new power as the head of Empire. Other characters spin around the margins vaguely behaving how the writers assume they’re supposed to based on the first season, but they lack motivation, depth or believability. Most of all what quickly becomes apparent is that whatever is going on this week, things will flip and change and there will be a pile more unfounded ‘shock’ reversals in seven days time: in other words, this week’s storylines don’t matter because they’ll be undone by what happens next time so why bother caring? The show certainly still has its moments – Taraji P Henson’s Cookie remains the best screen creation of the last 12 months and her put down of “You can’t even dike right” to Anika was jaw-droppingly, laugh-out-loud politically incorrect – but it says a lot that the stand-out character of the first episode of season 2 was that of prison inmate Frank Gathers impressively played by Chris Rock. Unfortunately, after the audience has invested in getting to know the character, he doesn’t make it out of the episode alive which means it’s just all been a bit of a waste of time. Most criminally of all, even the music – which I absolutely loved in season 1 – feels sketched in and unmemorable by comparison this year. A real disappointment, it seems that Empire is destined to be a classic TV supernova: a spectacular start but ultimately very short-lived.
Empire continues on E4 on Tuesdays at 9pm
American Horror Story Hotel S5 E1
Another in the new trend of anthology series telling a different tale each season, when American Horror Story started in 2011 it did so as a proper updated haunted house/ghost story with genuine scares and horror. Somewhere along the way it has progressively lost that sense and now seems just content to shock its audience with gore and sex while progressively becoming more arch and tongue in cheek about the whole thing. The latest season, entitled “Hotel”, feels more like it’s a sly pastiche of The Shining and Se7en, perhaps with a dash of Twin Peaks and an overall dressing of modern vampire chic, but so much of it is played to get a snigger out of the audience that the moments that might actually come across as scary just end up being rather jolting and at worse laughable. That said, it’s an impossibly stylish show which means it’s certainly never dull to look at, and it also makes striking use of a raucous musical soundtrack with one entire sex-and-slaughter sequence memorably played out to “Tear You Apart” by She Wants Revenge with no dialogue at all. The absence of former star Jessica Lange is barely felt and it allows Kathy Bates to step up and take over the lead, while Wes Bentley and Matt Bomer return from cameo appearances in season four to take on full-time roles this year alongside stalwarts Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters and Denis O’Hare. And then there’s Lady Gaga in her first major acting role, and all I can say is that she … Makes an impression, to be sure. She’s perfect for the role, which was clearly created with her firmly in mind rather like David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth or The Hunger . The overall effect is really quite bizarre and certainly outrageous and not all that likeable; for the first half of the opening episode of “Hotel” I was very tempted to turn off and watch something else instead. But somewhere along the way it started to sink its claws into me once again, and while I’m by no means sure that I like it or that it’s even terrible good, it’s without doubt terribly addictive and ultimately there’s no way I can avoid tuning in next week to find out what absurd thing happens next and what new genre movie they decide to pillage for inspiration.
American Horror Story continues on Fox on Tuesdays at 9pm
The Last Kingdom S1 E1
The BBC’s newest epic drama series, The Last Kingdom is an adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s series of historical fiction novels based in Viking times. They’ve certainly poured a lot of money into it and it’s handsomely and impressively staged with lots of cold, wet and muddy location filming in Hungary. There’s an extraordinary cast on view as well, including star names such as Rutger Hauer, Matthew Macfadyen, Ian Hart, Joseph Milson, Alec Newman and Jason Flemyng. The lead role of Uhtred is played as a boy by Tom Taylor and then as a young man by Danish actor Alexander Dreymon, and the story follows his passage from being the son of an English lord to being taken prisoner by a marauding band of Vikings, one of whom – Ragner, played by Tobias Santelmann – decides to keep him as an adopted son which goes down poorly with others who treat Uhtred as a mere slave or even a ‘pet’. It’s fast moving and the first episode alone covers a lot of ground and several years – but it’s probably too much for its own good, as it sets up an initial location and set of characters only to have all that overturned and junked within the first half hour; then after a disjointed 10-year jump in the narrative, it sets up a new location and characters in the second half of the episode only for all that, too, to all come crashing down by the end credits. By the end of that first hour, pretty much everyone in whom we’ve invested time getting to know other than Uhtred is no longer an active part of the narrative and I have to confess that my interest rapidly unravelled. It didn’t help that in almost all major respects, The Last Kingdom heaves extremely close to the History Channel’s Vikings created by Michael Hirst which features many of the same historical figures and overall themes as this one. While it’s probably fair to say that Cornwall and Hirst were likely working from the same sources and that Hirst may even have dipped into Cornwall’s novels during his period of research, the end result is that for me at least it’s Vikings that ends up being more the more entertaining and compelling proposition. Even though I earnestly tried, I’m afraid my heart never opened to The Last Kingdom and I won’t be returning to see how it develops. The BBC clearly want it to be their very own Game of Thrones but it simply isn’t; and the irony is that History Channel never had anything like the same vision or ambition for Vikings and yet ended up coming markedly closer to achieving the target nonetheless.
The Last Kingdom continues on Thursdays on BBC Two at 9pm.