The Walking Dead

QuickTake: Checking in on six this year’s US TV returning line-up

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Is it me, or is this year’s new Fall TV season proving rather muted? I can’t think of any new shows that have premiered that have caught my attention, and instead it’s been mostly a return of new seasons of last year’s programmes.

In the absence of anything fresh and noteworthy, let’s do a quick round-up of what’s happening in six of the US shows that have come back onto our screens in recent weeks. All of these have been reviewed on Taking The Short View in the past so we’ll keep his quick and punchy as we check in with the latest offerings from The Walking Dead, Criminal Minds and DC’s superhero quartet The Flash, Arrow, Supergirl and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.

A word of warning in advance – there are some spoilers from the episodes that have aired to date. Read the rest of this entry »

QuickTakes: Arne Dahl S2, The Walking Dead S6, Fargo S2, Arrow S4, The Flash S2, Empire S2, American Horror Story Hotel, The Last Kingdom

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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! Read the rest of this entry »

QuickTakes: The Flash, American Horror Story, How To Get Away With Murder, Intruders, Scorpion, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Walking Dead

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It’s that time of year when the TV schedules are so crowded with brand new shows (and new series of returning shows) that it’s impossible to keep up, so I’m going to go into ’emergency mode” and briefly cover four freshman titles and three returning shows in one go. Hold on tight, here we go…

The Flash S1 E1 (Sky One)

As you might expect from a direct spin-off from an established and highly successful series, The Flash hits the ground running (if you’ll pardon the pun) with top-notch, super-slick production values and a confident sense of what it’s out to do – no first episode/first season nerves here. As befitting its title character played by Grant Gustin, the show is also intensely fast-moving, the first ten minutes alone packing in more background story and new character introductions than most shows manage in two whole episodes, all the while seamlessly weaving in a recap of Barry Allen’s previous crossover appearance in Arrow. The overall set-up of the show is much brighter and cheerful than that of its elder sibling which skews to a darker, more angst-ridden approach whereas it’s clear this new show will be the one to take on the more fantasy elements of superheroes and supervillains (or metahumans as they’re referred to here) than Arrow which is much more set in a world of massively heightened but still grungy realism. The Flash seems to want to steer away from the darker depths of the senior series, and I’m all in favour of that sort of welcome variety of tone: by contrast with all the brooding sub-Batman introspection, this new show allows Barry the same infectious enjoyment of his new superpowers that any young guy would have in the same situation. However there is still the glint of something harder lodged at the heart of the backstory in which it’s revealed that Barry’s father Henry is in jail for the long-ago murder of Barry’s mother – and in the kind of little detail that will delight long-time DC nerds, Henry is played by John Wesley Shipp who was himself the Flash in a 1990 version of the series. On the downside, some of the elements of the show seem a little pre-fab – the instant team that Barry assembles around him feels like the show’s creators simply went to the same stockroom they share with Arrow, pulled out the same basic script templates and were content to simply respray them with bright primary colours as befitting a more comic book show, all of which does make The Flash feel slightly shallow and significantly less original when compared to Arrow. Even so, overall this was really as good a start to a new show as you could possibly hope for – it’s just that it will need to continue at the same level if it’s to survive in the crowded TV/film superhero market. My only concerns are whether the relative lack of depth compared to Arrow and the one-dimensional aspect of Barry’s high-speed powers will make for a diverse-enough long-running show.

The Flash airs on Sky One on Tuesdays at 8pm Read the rest of this entry »

The Walking Dead S4 E9-16 (Fox)

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Despite its critical and ratings success, The Walking Dead has always appeared to have a big ongoing problem with balance. It obviously can’t be just an unending parade of horrific beheadings and shock deaths every episode; but any effort to pause, take stock and build up new characters is instantly greeted with complaints from fans that the show has become too slow, lost its way or is veering too much into soap opera territory. Finding the exact pivot point to please everyone is surely impossible.

For me, I had thought that the first half of season 4 was the most consistently excellent run of episodes that the show had so far put together; but I was concerned that its decision to go for a huge mid-season cliffhanger by essentially blowing up its jailhouse setting and killing off several important and well-loved characters might prove to be the tipping point. There’s only so many times you can pull that trick without the audience going, “What, really? We have to start from scratch again?” without them wondering whether it’s really worth it or whether it’s just become an unsatisfying neverending undead version of Groundhog Day. Read the rest of this entry »

The Blacklist S1 E1-10 (Sky Living) – and others from 2013 US Fall TV

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Apparently The Blacklist has brought NBC its highest ratings for a freshman drama series since the turn of the century, and just ten episodes into its run it’s not only been given a full-season order it’s also been given a very early renewal for a second year as well. I’m surprised by this, not because the show isn’t any good (it’s one of the best of the Class of 2013 so far) but because it’s such early days and the show is still so clearly finding its feet by trying on a succession of different borrowed sets of attire as it seeks to find out what it wants to be when it grows up and becomes a proper TV show.

blacklistThe high-concept premise is that notorious former high-level government agent turned elusive most-wanted fugitive called Raymond “Red” Reddington suddenly walks into the FBI building in Washington DC to calmly turn himself in. He offers to help them capture some of the most evil and dangerous criminal threats in the world – many so successful the FBI doesn’t even know about them – but on one condition: he will work only with rookie profiler Elizabeth Keen. A special task force is green-lit with the sort of alacrity only ever seen in time-starved television pilots desperate to lay out their format for the studio execs, and away we go: only it’s soon clear that not only is Red playing a very different game, he is also ten steps ahead of the plodding FBI staff at every turn to entirely his own unknown ends. Read the rest of this entry »

The Mist (2007) [Blu-ray]

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The Mist is probably one of the best little low-budget horror movies that you’ve never heard of. And you really should have: it’s written and directed by Frank Darabont (who also brought The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile to the screen) and this is very clearly the bridge between that earlier phase of his career and his time stewarding The Walking Dead to the TV screen.

The film is set in a small town in Maine (which tells you right away that like those earlier Darabont films, this is adapted from a Stephen King story.) In the wake of a severe storm, a strange mist descends from the nearby hills where a secret military base is located. Shortly afterwards, a terrified man runs into the local supermarket screaming, “There’s something in the mist.” Read the rest of this entry »

The Walking Dead S2 E1 “What Lies Ahead”

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When you find yourself with a stunning and wholly unexpected break-out hit on your hands – as American cable TV channel AMC did with the six-part The Walking Dead mini-series in 2010 – the big question mark and headache hanging over things is: can you repeat that success in the sophomore year? Can you convert that flash in the pan to something sustained and long-lasting, or will it fall apart in your hands when you have to get serious about it?

It doesn’t help when the production’s co-creator and showrunner (Hollywood director Frank Darabont in this case) suddenly leaves the project a couple of episodes into the making of the second series, after most of the writers have also just been replaced. It speaks volumes of considerable trouble behind the scenes, and means that when you’re watching the finished episodes you’re actually micro-analysing it thinking: “Is this where the quality dips? Where the rows set in? Where the shark-jumping begins? Is that why Darabont quit/was fired/delete as applicable?”

Fortunately, even with the micro-analysis set to full-strength, it’s hard to see how the first episode of season 2 represents a shift in direction or dip in quality thus far. The opening half hour in particular in staggeringly strong and also very simple in premise, as our heroes get stuck in a motorcar graveyard on a freeway in the middle of nowhere. Inevitably, a wave of the walking dead approach – too many to fight off, so all our heroes can do is hide and take cover in and under the wrecked vehicles as the zombies shuffle past inches away, in a deeply nerve-wracking extended sequence that leaves you holding your own breath past the point of comfort.

Critics fear that Darabont’s departure means they’re ‘soaping it up’, but certainly in the first half of this episode the ‘soap’ elements are simply those that existed in the first mini-series – the tangled relationship of the sheriff’s wife and his deputy; Andrea contemplating suicide. Yes, the second half of the episode does feature a long sequence where the sheriff (Britain’s own Andrew Lincoln) has a chat with his Saviour in a church in the middle of nowhere – but by then we need the respite, and the potentially mawkish moment has been paid for upfront by the deliriously macabre black comedy spectacle of zombie worshippers sitting silently in the pews, before promptly getting hacked to pieces or their heads caved in by an explosion of righteous retribution from the good guys. Even the falseness of the church itself (the tolling bell is the total artifice of a timer-activated recording played over a loudspeaker) adds an edge to any potential sentimentality-overdose from the ‘talking to God’ sequence.

Nor does the episode end with a pat resolution. We do not find the missing member of the group we’ve been searching for; and then out of nowhere there is a shocking gunshot during an apparently magical encounter with the ‘natural world’, and one of the members of the regular group that we’ve always assumed would be safe to the end is on the receiving end of it.

Far from finding any cracks or signs of shark-jumping in this season opener, I thought this was possibly the strongest episode we’ve seen of The Walking Dead since the pilot. It continues the tension and genuine outright horror (one of the scenes where the group have to check out what a zombie had for its last meal is astoundingly gross), deftly juggles the ‘soapy’ side to things, but at the same time it now has a new sense of self-confidence in what it’s trying to do and a new swagger in how it goes about doing it that stem directly from the success of the first season.

Whether this is just Darabont’s last triumphant hurrah at the helm and the cracks (if indeed there prove to be any) will start showing in two or three episodes’ time is another question entirely, but for now The Walking Dead is at the top of its gleefully grotesque game.