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Review: American Gods 1x1 (US: Starz; UK: Amazon)

Posted on May 4, 2017 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

American Gods

In the US: Sundays, 9pm E/P, Starz
In the UK: New episode available every Monday 

By all rights, Neil Gaiman's American Gods is a novel I should have in some lovingly crafted Folio Society edition, situated in pride of place on my bookshelf or on a small shrine. Pagan gods? Check. American setting? Check. Neil Gaiman? Check and double check - after all, I spent most of my university days not just avidly reading Gaiman's comic book works, particularly Sandman, but looking like its titular character, too. This is basically a photo of my sister and me in the early 90s.

Sandman and Death

Imagine the confusion and fear among knowing bystanders when we met up.

And yet, somehow, American Gods passed me by. I've not read it; I've not even listened to any of the audio books of it. I don't even want to, despite very much enjoying Gaiman's work on Doctor Who and his novel (co-authored with Terry Pratchett), Good Omens. Odd, hey?

A new TV show, though - one co-showrun by the marvellous Bryan Fuller (Heroes, Hannibal, Mockingbird Lane, Pushing Daisies)? Maybe that's more my speed now?

So, sign me up, but don't expect comparisons with the original, only answers to the thorny question of whether it's a good TV show or not.

The story follows the fantastically named Shadow Moon (Hollyoaks' Ricky Whittle), a con serving a three-year prison sentence who's released days early when his wife is killed in a car accident. Trying his best to make his way home for her funeral, he encounters obstacle after obstacle, until he comes across conman 'Mr Wednesday' (Lovejoy's Ian McShane) and his luck mysteriously changes. Maybe that's got something to do with the leprechaun (The Wire's Pablo Schreiber) he also meets. At least, he says he's a leprechaun, but he's mighty tall, so Moon has his doubts. Probably not because of the height, though.

Discovering his wife wasn't quite who he thought she was, Moon is tempted by an offer of employment as Mr Wednesday's 'heavy', but before he even starts, he's discovering that Mr Wednesday has some very, very odd, very nasty, sometimes completely faceless enemies. 

And that's basically the plot of the first episode, which really isn't that inspiring a piece of work. Not much happens other than establishing that Moon is rather similar to Luke Cage in terms of personality, if a bit less indestructible and without half the charm or catchphrases. There's also little of the fantastical about it until the end, and what there is, largely doesn't work, Schreiber's leprechaun (who may be from Ireland. Or Russia) being an amalgam of stereotypes about Irish people being drunkards and fighters, rather than anyone liable to lead you to the end of any rainbow. I imagine that later episodes will be where we discover the rather important central conceit of the series that there's a war between New Gods (such as technology) and Old Gods (such as Odin) being waged in America. That sounds more interesting, doesn't it?

But there are some things that work. Ian McShane is obviously marvellous as the scheming Mr Wednesday ("Today's my day" - gosh, I wonder who he might be), but what really lifts American Gods out of the ordinary - at least at this stage - is the mise-en-scène. Hovering here in roughly the same orbit as season 2 of Hannibal (ie not quite as perfect as season 1 but not as far up its own arse as season 3), American Gods does have some truly lovely and sometimes disturbing visuals, as well as the equally unsettling, jazzy dissonance of Brian Reitzell's musical compositions. As it's on Starz, there's also quite a bit of the Spartacus gore along for the ride, too, with some blood tableaux that are often breathtaking.

Without those, there'd be little to mark out the show from any other piece of generic fantasy, though. There's almost nothing of Gaiman or Fuller's wit and wisdom in any of the dialogue and where it gets fantastical, it's often in ways that make you scoff rather than wonder. 

Gaiman says that a lot of the first episode is new but still in keeping with the book, so I'll give the show the benefit of the doubt for now and hope it gets better in later episodes as they return to the original text. There's also a top cast of guest gods due later on (Crispin Glover, Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Stormare, Gillian Anderson, Orlando Jones, Corbin Bernsen, Jeremy Davies), which should make that task a whole lot easier.

But this isn't the way back into either Gaiman's or Fuller's works that I was expecting. Still, maybe we shouldn't expect miracles.

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Review: Chance 1x1-1x3 (US: Hulu)

Posted on October 31, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Chance

In the US: Wednesdays, Hulu

For most people in the UK, Hugh Laurie is Hugh Laurie. He may have played Gregory House in House for umpteen seasons, but he's also the guy from Blackadder, Bertie Wooster in Jeeves and Wooster, and Stephen Fry's comedy writing partner for most of the 80s and early 90s.

For most Americans, though, he's House. He is the grumpy, misanthropic, genius American doctor from House. End of. So you can kind of understand why Laurie would take on a two-season role as an eponymous doctor again, if only to cleanse American viewers' memories by playing something similar, but crucially different in one big regard: he's nice.

Based on the novel by Ken Humm (John from Cincinnati), Chance sees Laurie playing a consultant psychologist, who tries to sort out treatment for people who have neurological problems. When Gretchen Mol (Life on Mars) is referred to him with disassociative personality disorder, which she says started after her cop husband Paul Adelstein (Prison Break) began to abuse her, he tries to help her but soon the husband is coming after him.

Meanwhile, the non-confrontational Laurie is in the middle of a no-fault divorce from his wife Diane Farr (Numb3rs) and needs money. When he takes his antique desk to Clarke Peters (The Wire) to be sold, Peters tells him he could get nearly twice as much money if it still had the metalwork on it. Fortunately, Ethan Suplee (My Name is Earl) works for him and could add the missing metalwork if Laurie doesn't mind a little deception. In turn, Suplee doesn't mind a little bit of ultra-violence and is potentially willing to help Laurie out with his other problem…

I'll play a little game now. I'll list a few things and you have to say at which word you realised what the show's biggest influence is.

San Francisco. Psychiatry. Blonde. Femme fatale. Different personalities. Hitchcockian strings.

Well, if you haven't got it already, the answer's Vertigo, one of Alfred Hitchock's finest, in which Jimmy Stewart falls for Kim Novak who plays two women who turn out to be just the one. Certainly, Chance has huge ladels of both Vertigo and film noir spread all over it. There's also lashings of Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanours, with Suplee and Peters leading the normally ethical Laurie towards a life of escalating moral infractions towards possibly even murder.

But Chance is certainly a lot more than that and knows that you know what its references are. Certainly, Laurie doesn't do anything massively stupid, instead doing all manner of smart, prudent things rather than leaping in at the deep end. There's also a certain House of Cards - David Mamet's, that is - quality to it all which the show is also keen to highlight. Is maths tutor Mol really disassociative or is she faking it? Is Adelstein really doing all the things that he seems to be doing or is the surprisingly bright Suplee actually doing it all to lure Laurie into a huge con? Could they even all be in league with one another?

Chance wants you to be wondering all of these things, which is why, despite its depressing qualities, it's also compelling, very tense and claustrophobic (rather than vertiginous). The double meaning in the title, which becomes hugely important in the second episode, makes you wonder exactly how much of what's going on is genuine coincidence and what's not - or even if Laurie's character is facing a Sixth Sense discovery that he's had a brain injury himself. Even if you're not exactly sure what the trap is, you can feel the jaws slowly closing around Laurie, who's a good guy who wants to do the right thing.

It's a good, smart, well-paced thriller that's definitely worth a try.

Barrometer rating: 2
Would it be better with a female lead? No
TMINE's prediction: Commissioned for two seasons

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Review: Quarry 1x1 (US: Cinemax; UK: Sky Atlantic)

Posted on September 16, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Cinemax's Quarry

In the US: Fridays, 10pm, Cinemax
In the UK: Sky Atlantic. Starts October

As fans of The Great British Bake Off have recently discovered, format rights are very important these days. In fact, there have been 60-odd legal disputes over format rights around the world, over the years.

This is odd, since legally, there's no such thing as format rights. After all, it's one thing to argue that as you created suave British superspy James Bond, someone else writing books about suave British superspy James Bond without your permission is doing something untoward; it's quite another to argue that no one else should be able to make a TV show that involves amateur cooks making cakes.

Of course, there's a grey area somewhere between those two extremes. How about books featuring British superspy? Or superspies of any nationality? Or just regular spies? What about baking competitions that have a host called Mary Berry and all the same rounds as The Great British Bake Off, that's called The Pretty Good British Bake On?

It's somewhere lurking in this middle ground that we found Quarry, Cinemax's latest excursion into adventure, drama, things being shot and ladies getting naked. It stars Logan Marshall-Green of Traveler, Dark Blue and Prometheus fame as a soldier returning home to Memphis after the Vietnam War, where he discovers not only that veterans aren't that welcome, particularly ones implicated in rather heinous massacres, but also that jobs aren't that common. However, the rather mysterious Peter Mullan (Miss Julie, Red Riding, My Name is JoeTyrannosaur) is willing to pay him and fellow war buddy Jamie Hector (The Wire) rather a lot of money to put their soldiering skills to work killing people, and before you know it, the body count is piling up.

If that sounds a bit familiar, it's because of one of two things. 

  1. You've read Max Allen Collins' Quarry series of books on which the show is based
  2. You've seen ITV's The Fixer, in which a war veteran who's done some bad things ends up killing people for Peter Mullan.

The shows aren't exactly 100% identical and the Quarry series was written way before The Fixer. But with the very Scottish Peter Mullan playing a very Southern but otherwise identical 'tough bastard boss'? Hmm. That does not to me coincidence say.

If only format rights were real, ITV might be having some quiet words with Cinemax right now.

As well as being a relocated Fixer, Quarry also has a lot in common with Cinemax's own Banshee, beyond simply the involvement of Greg Yaitanes. 'Quarry' - as Marshall-Green soon becomes known - is returning to a lost love whose love he might have lost (Jodi Balfour); he's come back brutalised by his experiences and has to adapt to normal life again; there's the lure of criminal life and its rewards but the acknowledgement of its costs, particularly in the lives of people we care about as well as of normality; there's a sexually fluid and amusing fellow criminal (Damon Herriman - last seen as a trans spy in Australia's Secret City); and practically everyone in the cast is from outside the US (Mullan - British; Balfour - South African; Herriman - Australian; Nikki Amuka-Bird - Nigerian-British).

But the tone's different - whereas Banshee was pure pulp that both transcended and embraced its trashier qualities, Quarry wants to be something greater, something more noirish, something more philosophical. As well as lapping up its period setting, the mid-70s being a respite from the omnipresent 80s nostalgia we're currently experiencing, Yaitanes also gives us all the directorial tricks he can throw our way, ranging from flashforwards and dream sequences to odd camera angles and compositions. And both Marshall-Green and that non-American cast list are top-tier acting talent - they're not here for the shootouts. 

While the feature-length first episode was a little too long and a little too exploitative for its own good, Quarry made a good start, clearly setting itself up to be Banshee mark 2, a more refined show that should still appeal to the same audience but which isn't going to dwell in the realm of the hyper-violent and could draw in more discerning viewers as a result. The producers need to work a little on making the characters more appealing, as pretty much everyone is either too messed up or too criminal for you to want to spend much time with them. But they have the foundations they need in place, plenty of source material to work with (including The Fixer) and a decent story to tell, so I'll be tuning to see waht they do with it all.

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