The Handmaid’s Tale (season 1)

handmaids tale poster

It’s been well over a decade since I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and over 30 years since it was first published) but the power of the story stayed with me. It was enough to make me a little cautious about this adaptation, too: both for the usual reason (what if it’s not well done?) and just the feeling of not wanting to go into too dark a place with my viewing. I’m so so glad I gave this a go, though, as it’s one of the best bits of television from 2017!

Set in a not-too-distant future, attacks on America’s government have opened the way for a new regime: a back-to-basics, fundamentalist Christian one, with more than a few ideas that are very unsavoury. The Handmaids, for instance: faced with plummeting birth rates, fertile females are rounded up, tagged, and sent to breed with the most powerful men – whether they like it or not.

The Handmaid of the title is June (Elizabeth Moss, perhaps best known from Mad Men), who we follow as she is ‘placed’ in the home of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love) and his wife (Yvonne Strahovski, formerly of Chuck), expected to produce a child for them. You’d perhaps think that she’d be well treated in between times, given the importance of her role, but she’s a prisoner and an object, and treated accordingly. Still, nothing quite as awful as is revealed in the flashbacks, explaining how this bizarre and awful regime not only gets started, but how on earth it can continue.

Although massively shocking, I think there’s actually a little less graphicness on the screen than there was in the books, which is a bit of a relief to be honest. That said, there is more than enough here to make anyone feel powerfully uncomfortable – and that’s kind of the point. The kicker for me wasn’t the horrendous treatment of women – not just the handmaids, but all the women – which I was expecting from reading the book, but that as the series progresses and we piece together all the flashbacks, that there is a perverse kind of logic in how this new political systems starts. Tying in things like climate change brings the whole thing more into the present day, only adding to the oomph factor.

Add in fantastic performances from the entire cast, high production values, and some amazing if un-flashy visuals, and this was just compelling from start to finish. It does end on a bit of a cliffhanger (as does the book, if I recall), but hurrah – we’re getting a second series! Bring it on!

First broadcast: May 2017
Series: 1 (renewed)
Episodes: 10 @ ~60 mins each

My rating: 9/10


American Gods (season 1)

I’d long thought American Gods was probably my favourite Neil Gaiman book, so an on-screen adaptation made me both excited and nervous. Would it translate from the page?

Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is released from prison when his wife dies. As he tries to make his way home for the funeral, he’s repeatedly approached by the rather shady Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane) – who seems to know more about Shadow than he should. In Wednesday’s company, Shadow meets an array of very very odd… people. Some are keen to have Shadow turn against his new employer, others are – well, not exactly friendly, but at least not trying to kill them. Yet.

Meanwhile, somewhere in America… for every race that travelled to this melting pot of a country, another god made the journey with them. From fertility goddesses to djinn, the old gods are still there – but now there are new gods, too: media and technology, and more. So, who’s side are you on?

This was not an easy story to try to portray on screen, methinks, and as such full kudos to the production team for managing it so well. I’d recently reread the book in preparation for watching this, and mostly that did help a lot with understanding what was going on – there are more than a few strange parts that must have been utterly bonkers without that background. However, a few strands ARE changed – notably around Laura Moon, Shadow’s (ahem) dead wife – which did leave me scrabbling for just a little bit (I’m still not sure I understand the fly spray), especially as we hit flashbacks.

Overall, though, this is a tad bonkers but very worth the watch. The casting in particular is fabulous, with so many famous names and faces, including Gillian Anderson (in so many fab guises!), Emily Browning, Peter Stormare, Orlando Jones, Corbin Bersen, Kristin Chenoweth – I could go on! The range of deities and oddities on show is just as packed as the book, and I loved the way the ‘Somewhere in America…’ sections translated.

I’m disappointed that so little of the story could fit into one series, though, so ideally I’d love to have binged all – I dunno, three, six, ten or however many we’re going to get. Bring it all! 🙂

First broadcast: May 2017 (UK)
Series: 1 (and already renewed)
Episodes: 8 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 8/10

Big Little Lies (series 1)

“A perfect life is a perfect lie.”

Life in Monterey is pretty perfect. Great schools, great beach, gorgeous weather, gorgeous people. How irksome that Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) has to deal with her ex and his new partner, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), having a daughter in the same class as her youngest. Her best friend Celeste (Nicole Kidman) – gorgeous, filthy rich, and sickeningly still in love with her twins’ father (Alexander Skarsgard) – joins her in befriending newcomer and single mom, Jane (Shailene Woodley), especially after mutual ‘frenemy’, Renata (Laura Dern), starts a feud on day one of school.

So far, so mundane, right? Except, all of the above – and the bulk of the series – is actually told in flashback. In the ‘now’, we get snippets of police interviews, the other residents of Monterey sharing all the dirty gossip, all the little lies that led up to a shocking murder…

Ooh – can we say tension?! I freaking loved this TV show, not least because of the way the story is told, keeping you guessing right til the end the who, the how, and the why.

The initial draw had been that cast, and they are awesome. I’ve since heard interviews and the fact that these are ‘older’ (!) actresses getting super-meaty roles should not go unnoticed. Mostly I’m a plot person, and the edge-of-the-seat, need-to-know is still what impressed me most, but quite frankly those pitch-perfect performances, each with their own dark issues and web of lies surrounding them, would see me happily watch it all again even now I know the answers!

Now, usually I will choose to read the book before watching an adaptation, but for one reason or another I started the TV series first – but picked up the book a few episodes in. I’ll review the book shortly, but I have to say I love the way the story is subtly altered to ramp up the tensions even more.

It’s not exactly an easy, cheery, watch – this is one very dark show about all the secrets of marriages and relationships – but absolutely worth the time. And read the book, too – the alterations are a masterclass in storytelling, just as an added bonus!

First broadcast: March 2017 (UK)
Series: 1 so far, talks about a second series reported
Episodes: 7 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 9/10

Agents of SHIELD (season 3)

Arguably the most mainstream of the MCU television series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has reached its third season with a continuing fall in viewers but increase in ratings. Thankfully, this has translated into a fourth season – I say thankfully, because the show still feels like it’s – no pun intended – evolving and growing.

We start series 3 exactly where series 2 left off, which is to say (without too many spoilers!) with Fitz mourning the loss of Simmons, and Coulson and Daisy (characters changing names mid-show is still weird!) heading up a campaign to recruit more ‘inhumans’. However, they’re not the only ones hunting down the enhanced beings…

We’ve got a new big bad in this series, and I have to say I rather liked – suitably menacing and unstoppable without feeling too ridiculous, tying quite nicely to the backstory, and expanding the mythos of Hydra. Really, the only downside is no one in this show ever really thinking about calling in the Avengers, even when things are at their grimmest!

Relationships develop and change between different sets of characters, too, and the few new ones are used well enough without being forced to the fore. We’re going to lose some familiar faces, too. This focus on the people – human, all, even when they’re aren’t, exactly – is I think what gives the show such strength, leaving the battling of monsters slightly in second place. Would we expect less from Mr Whedon, though? 🙂 My one complaint here would be the focus still being quite fixed on Daisy, who is boring me a little; I think the show could do with another really interesting, quirky character, as currently we’ve really only got Coulson standing out for me (the Cavalry being a little subdued this season, and FitzSimmons… well). YMMV.

Mention to the stand out cameos including Peter MacNicol as a rather unlikely Asgardian (given they’ve previously all looked like Chris Hemsworth or Idris Elba!), and John Hannah as something of a mad scientist. We’ve also got the ‘cameo’ mention of events from Captain America: Civil War, in the antepenultimate (come on – fabulous word!) episode, making the fans smile.

The whole series ends with a ‘flash forward’ that asks more than enough questions to make the announcement of a new season very welcome!

First broadcast: January 2016 (UK)
Series: 3
Episodes: 22 @ ~45 mins each

My rating: 7.5/10

The Durrells (season 1)

The work of Gerald Durrell formed a small part of the background of my childhood, from his books (My Family and Other Animals) and nature shows on TV to a trip to Jersey zoo. Still, it wasn’t something I’d thought about in years, and when this TV show popped up I wasn’t initially all that keen. An episode while feeling poorly, however – it is excellent pick-me-up, low-effort viewing! – changed that.

When Gerry’s around the age of 10, his long-widowed mother decides to move the family from a grey and depressing life in England to the sun of Corfu. The TV show doesn’t mention it, but they’d lived in India before Mr Durrell’s death, so perhaps not quite the massive upheaval portrayed.

The TV show also changes the focus from that of young Gerry (merrily collecting living specimens of every creature on the island!) to that of his mother, Louisa (Keeley Hawes), as she attempts to make a new life for herself and four somewhat scatty, irresponsible offspring among the Greek locals.

I have almost no recollection of the books, but I surmise this compares poorly. It’s been thoroughly modernised – or rather, it’s been made with such an eye for what nostalgia thinks the 1930s were like. I could see this being a huge irritation to some, but to be honest I rather enjoyed the whole series as a bit of gentle fun. Are there flaws? So many, from the rather ‘peasant-y’ portrayal of the locals to the upper-middle class twits the family can come across as at times. Still, there was no malice to any of it, and the whole thing still comes across rather sweetly.

I wouldn’t rave about The Durrells, but I’m quietly happy that a second series has been commissioned. Sunday evenings need a bit of ‘nice’.

First broadcast: April 2016
Series: 1
Episodes: 6 @ ~60 mins each

My rating: 7/10 – sweet and lovely Sunday evening telly, with a touch of (fake) nostalgia

Agent Carter (season 2)

In a schedule already overcrowded with superhero shows, Agent Carter stood out a little for me: she’s a woman with no superpowers herself, and we’re in the 1940s. Season 1 was full of the frustrations of a very capable woman facing horrendous sexism, eventually using this underestimation to accomplish a great deal.

Season 2 changes location, sending Peggy (Hayley Atwell) to the sunshine of Los Angeles and away from a few of the ‘hiccups’ at the end of the previous series – although many of these seem to follow her.

Still feeling slightly unusual on tv, there is a single plot line through the ten episodes – which can be a problem if it’s not strong. Here, it’s a mysterious ‘zero matter’ substance, and an aging actress finally grasping some power into her life. Throw in a mysterious cabal pulling the strings behind the scenes, a scientist badly affecting by the zero matter, a bit of a love triangle, and… well, meh, a bit.

Despite not being overly enthralled with much of this – the villain was a bit weak, the macguffin and danger under-explained – I still found the show entertaining. Most of this comes from the character of Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy), Howard Stark’s stiff upper-lipped English butler, and from Carter herself as a kick-ass, do as she pleases, modern woman. The twisted psyche of the Russian sleeper agent is also hugely fun, especially compared to whiny villain Whitney Frost, so it was a shame she sort of disappeared rather abruptly.

Overall, it’s a shame these characters weren’t given a stronger story line – this ‘filler’-feeling season puts renewal in serious doubt. If by some chance it does come back, I’d also like to see it start to tie back in to the MCU a little more – we know this is history to the movies and other shows (a direct ancestor of SHIELD, of course!), so a little glimmer of the bridge would be great.

First broadcast: January 2016
Series: 2
Episodes: 10 @ ~42 mins each

My rating: 6/10 – I preferred season 1