Some shows you should maybe watch

Posted on April 23rd, 2014 in Culture | No Comments »

So, Breaking Bad has gone, everyone who wants to watch The Wire and The Sopranos has, True Detective was over almost before it began and you don’t need me to tell you that you should be watching Game of Thrones. What else should you be watching, both from the US and from home? Here are some suggestions.

The Good Wife

goodwife-longOver here, this has completely flown under the radar. The pilot episode, and basically the whole first season, doesn’t make it seem all that special. It’s a network drama and it’s on CBS, arguably the most conservative of the big American networks. It stars Julianna Margulies off of ER as Alica Florrick who returns to a career as a lawyer, starting from the bottom again as a junior associate, when her big-shot politician husband goes to prison following a very public sex scandal. And for the first year or two it just kind of motors along, equal parts snappy case-of-the-week “I object” “in my chambers” TV courtroom stuff, and some more soapy material about Alicia’s kids and her sexual tension with senior partner Will Gardner. Fun, but hardly great. Some time around the third season, it slowly starts to become bolder, quirkier, more subversive, more willing to upend the whole premise of the show for an episode, a few episodes, a season. Add to this an amazing roster of guest stars including Alan Cumming, Michael J Fox, Carrie Preston, Nathan Lane and Martha Plimpton to name only a handful and you have probably the best TV law show since Boston Legal and arguably the best American network drama currently on the air.

Watch it on DVD from Amazon, download it from iTunes or watch it on More4.

Orange is the New Black

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Probably the best of the Netflix originals, far better than the rather unsatisfactory Arrested Development episodes and nosing ahead of the fascinating and handsome but compromised House of Cards, this had an amazingly good run of episodes in its first year and its return is eagerly awaited by me at least. Based on the book by Piper Kerman, it tells the story of a seemingly-normal middle-class blonde WASP about to get married, whose reckless past catches up with her in the form of a 14 month jail sentence. The series carefully balances social comment with behind-bars melodrama and once again we have a cast to die for, including USS Voyager’s Captain Janeway in a red fright wig and full-on Russian accent.

Watch it on Netflix or buy the DVD from Amazon, but quick – the new series lands on 6 June.

Justified

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Based on a short story by the late lamented Elmore Leonard, this gunslinging melodrama is more contemporary than it feels. Masterminded by Graham Yost (Speed), this FX series stars Timothy Olyphant as US Marshall Raymond Givens who is too quick-on-the-draw for his Florida bosses and so has his ass transferred back to his home town of Harlan County, Kentucky. There he meets up with old sparring partners, including his no-good dad, and makes some new friends, enemies and frenemies. Largely an adventure series, but brilliantly plotted at its best, it benefits from some deeper more thoughtful characterisation, ending up with that delightful Breaking Bad mix of plenty of high-stakes but plenty of depth too. While it can’t quite claim to scale those heights, this is much, much more than case-of-the week procedural stuff. The first series is a bit bumpy, struggling to find a through-line, suffering from an obsession with religion which never arrives anywhere interesting, and saddled with characters called Bo Crowder, Boyd Crowder and Bowman Crowder to add to the confusion. Only Boyd is really interesting or relevant. The second series is a dramatic improvement with the arrival of the splendid Margo Martindale as the Big Bad Mags Bennett. The third season is almost as good and the fourth is the best yet. The fifth isn’t quite as satisfactory, but the last episode makes it clear that this was really the first half of the final season. Catch it now before it finishes next year.

Download from iTunes or buy the DVD from Amazon. Channel 5 was running it here but has now dropped it.

The Americans

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Another FX series, struggling to find its feet a little, but quietly growing in confidence and with a crackerjack premise. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys star as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, an apparently ordinary suburban American couple living in Washington DC in the early 1980s, looking after their two kids and running their travel agency. In fact, both were born in the Soviet Union and have been placed on US soil by the Kremlin to run covert missions for the mother country. Both leads are great, sporting an array of wigs and disguises, and the run-of-the-mill jumping, shooting and hiding in cupboards is given an extra frisson by the fact that our “heroes” are on the “wrong side”. As the series continues, it becomes clear that almost everyone on almost every team is compromised to some extent, and of course we get the irony from our twenty-first century perspective that the very thing the Jennings’ are fighting for will eventually be abandoned by those asking them to risk their lives for it. Not all the characters are quite “popping” as they should yet, but the series shows a lot of promise and has already been renewed for a third season.

ITV1 is showing the second series at the moment. Buy the first series on Amazon or download from iTunes.

Nurse Jackie

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Moving over to Showtime, we find Nurse Jackie, or what Edie Falco did after The Sopranos finished. In one of the best pilots of 2009, we meet New York nurse Jackie Peyton, whose attitude towards her job is one of compassionate pragmatism as her personal life gets ever more complicated. To say a lot more would be to undo the elegant structure of the opening episode which continually reveals layer after layer of this fascinating character. Comparisons with House are obvious for various reasons, but Nurse Jackie has a much more cheerfully comic tone and among a tremendous supporting cast features a total stand-out in the form of Merrit Wever as Zoe Barkow, a true original in every respect. As the seasons go on, Nurse Jackie faces the same problem as House – the more the series forces the protagonist to confront their personal issues, the greater the risk of breaking the series for good. Following the departure of original show-runners Liz Brixius and Linda Wallem after Season Four, Season Five hit the reset button pretty hard in order to keep going but the current sixth season seems to be finding an easier groove.

Sky Atlantic has been showing the fifth season and go of course buy it on Amazon or download it from iTunes.

Rev

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And finally, why not something home-grown? Tom Hollander and James Wood’s sitcom about an inner city C of E priest is far from The Vicar of Dibley with testicles. The first two series were funny, heartfelt, well acted and nicely judged. Hollander’s central performance is funny without being cartoony but the more overt acting styles of Miles Jupp and Simon McBurney (Simon McBurney!!) give him energy, while he grounds them – it’s very very clever. Add Olivia Colman as Mrs Vicar and a smattering of largely deadbeat parishoners and there’s a lot to enjoy. But this third series, arriving after a three year gap, has been nothing short of superb, almost apocalyptic in the woes and suffering it has heaped upon Adam Smallbone.

Series Three is finishing on BBC Two and is available on the BBC’s iPlayer. A boxed set of the first two series is available now and a set of all three is coming soon.

That’s enough for one post. Also worth mentioning are Louie, Orphan Black, Portlandia and Veep. Shows I’m watching but can’t really endorse include Helix, The Blacklist, Trophy Wife and Mom.

Evolution of a Media System. Chapter 3: The Telly

Posted on September 17th, 2010 in Technology | 1 Comment »

Two more cheerful chaps from Currys turned up with my lovely 42″ telly – took one look at my plasterboard walls and were about to slope off again, when at the last minute, one of them thought to look in the van for some of the special rawl plugs that this requires. Once found, the whole process of nailing the awesome beast to the wall took less than half an hour, and they departed with a generous tip.

I’ve moreoreless got the Harmony remote doing all the things I want it to, and both Blu-rays and Sky HD look fantastic on this giant screen. What’s amazing is how poor some SD content looks. Frasier on the Paramount Comedy channel looks worse than YouTube.

And I woke up yesterday to discover that the Sky box was actually taping what was meant to be my dummy recording. This was accompanied by a message informing me that my box’s software had been upgraded. A bit of tinkering later and I discovered that they’ve finally made Single Feed Mode work sensibly. Now if I’m watching BBC1 and a recording is due to start on BBC2, I will see a warning, and if I do nothing, it will flick over to BBC2 and make the recording correctly. This also seems to survive turning on “Anytime”. I believe that Single Feed Mode was introduced over a year ago. Good timing for me but appallingly slow for Sky’s other customers.

So, I’ve decided to postpone both the expensive SCR installation and the free, but unsightly, dish installation and just see how I rock with Single Feed for now. This completes the upgrade process. I hope you had as much fun as I did.

Now.

Where can I get a stash of good Blu-ray movies for under a tenner each?

Individualised dialogue – an example from 30 Rock

Posted on May 26th, 2009 in screenwriting, storytelling | No Comments »

Tina Fey’s breakout American sit-com 30 Rock is an exemplar of the genre in many ways. Its sketch sensibility means that it has an astonishingly high gag-rate, but the characters are well-drawn and create the comedy rather than simply being mouthpieces for it.

A well-known test of dialogue is to cover up the character names in your script and see if you can still tell who is speaking which line – does each character have their own individual voice? Here are some quick pen portraits of some of the main 30 Rock characters, which I’ll use in a minute to show you how Fey and the other writers extend this principle.

Liz Lemon – the lead, played by Tina Fey. Head writer on NBC sketch show “TGS”. Fundamentally decent girl nerd, good at her job, bad at most other things. Sample dialogue: (on being asked her religion) “I pretty much just do whatever Oprah tells me to.”

Jack Donaghy – Liz’s boss, played by Alex Baldwin. Ruthlessly ambitious corporate suit who becomes a mentor to Liz despite their differences. Sample dialogue: (on being asked why he’s wearing a Tuxedo) “It’s after six. What am I, a farmer?”

Kenneth Parcell – a page at NBC, played by Jack McBrayer. Endlessly optimistic and naive country boy, drawn to the big city by his love of television. Sample dialogue: “I don’t vote Republican or Democrat. Choosing is a sin, so I always just write in the Lord’s name.”

Tracy Jordan – star of TGS, played by Tracy Morgan. TV and movie superstar with a tenuous grasp on reality. Sample dialogue: “That’s not me. That’s a Tracy Jordan Japanese Sex Doll. You can tell us apart because it’s not suffering from a vitamin deficiency.”

Jenna Maroney – female star of TGS, now usurped by Tracy, but still consumed with self-obsession. Played by Jane Krakowski. Has been friends with Liz for years. Sample dialogue: “I got a residual check for that Japanese commercial I did! Three hundred dollars! I’m going to use the money to buy us all new boots for myself.”

Hopefully you agree that these are all good jokes, and all reflect their different personalities. But 30 Rock also scores because it avoids having Liz Lemon as the bland focal point around which a bunch of entertaining crazies orbits. Liz’s foibles, insecurities, strengths and opinions are a big part of the show, and so are her relationships to all the foregoing (and the other characters). How well do the writers know these relationships? Let’s look at how each of the other characters listed above typically refers to the lead character…

  • Jack, the corporate suit, calls her “Lemon”
  • Kenneth, the page, calls her “Miss Lemon”
  • Tracy, the lunatic, calls her “Liz Lemon” (every time)
  • Jenna, her friend since childhood, calls her “Liz”

If you can nail the relationships of your characters as clearly as this, you really know the world of your story.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service from just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.