Westworld (season 2)

Westworld s2 poster

The amazing and brilliant first season of Westworld left more than a few questions still to be answered. As ever, if you haven’t seen the first season, even a mention of something that happens in season 2 might be considered a spoiler, so read on at your own risk!

With the Hosts now taking control of themselves, the fight is on for the park. Caught up in the brewing war are many of the characters we met in season 1, and each has their own story. From Maeve, intent on finding her child, to William aka The Man in Black, still playing ‘the game’, the strength of season 2 is quite possibly the way it lets the bigger events play out as a background to some much more personal stories.

Another brilliant thing about series 2 is the widening picture of Delos’s crowning glory (in more ways than one…!). There are at least six parks, based on a character’s comment, and we get to see another two of them here. I won’t spoil the surprises, but I enjoyed these glimpses into the ‘other’ bits.

If I thought the cast were superb in series one, then I’ve run out of superlatives for the performances turned in here. Emotions have been turned up past eleven, and are displayed with such powerful subtlety from every single actor here. I mean, wows all around, quite frankly!

Of course, the plot is no less twisty than season one, and even expecting this I had to keep questioning: what’s happening, what timeline is this – “is there something wrong with this world”, in other words! Nothing can be taken for granted. Of course, knowing fine and well that this is what the show was likely to do, they even play with that: episode one might show you a familiar face, dead, only for you to spend the rest of the series waiting for the death to happen!

I do love this show. It’s intelligent, and assumes its audience is too. It plays with tropes, but doesn’t disappoint when it needs to deliver. The need to expand the story and follow several main characters on diverging paths possibly dilutes things just a little, so I didn’t adore it in quite the same way as season 1, but it was still some of the best TV out there, and I cannot wait for series 3!

First broadcast:  2018
Series: 2
Episodes: 10 @ ~42 mins each

My rating: 9/10

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Lucifer (season 1)

lucifer poster

Once upon a time a little graphic novel series, Sandman, told of the Lord of Hell, Lucifer Morningstar, growing bored of the job and deciding to decamp to Los Angeles – where else?! He opens up a nightclub and sets about living life to the full, encouraging the mortals around him to do the same.

Neil Gaimain’s story was picked up by Mike Carey, and Lucifer got his own spin-off comics – which have now been adapted for the small screen, but with the same irreverent humour and sympathy-for-the-devil tone that would probably have my granny rolling in her grave. Ahem!

So… after a shootout at Lux, his nightclub, Lucifer ends up consulting for the police department. He’s soon rather obsessed with Detective Chloe Decker – possibly the one person on earth who seems immune to his plentiful charms. But talking of immunity, how is Lucifer’s power, and his invulnerability, going to be affected by a prolonged stay in the mortal realm?

I’m a bit late to the party with this one, seeing as it was squirrelled away on a less-than-handy broadcaster. Still, better late than never – except for the bit where, after three series, they’ve only gone and cancelled this! Is it still worth watching? Hell, yes! 🙂

I absolutely love the story here. It’s dark and funny and not as blasphemous as some might think (ymmv). More, the intrigue levels are kept high – I practically bounced off the sofa at the big cliff-hanger statement setting up season 2!

Tom Ellis does wonderfully as the sardonic, not-quite-slimey-somehow title character, utterly clueless as to why he can’t walk through life doing and getting what – or who! – he wants. The fish out of water schtick works really well when your outsider character is a fallen angel with the power to make people blurt out their deepest, darkest desires…! His relationship with the detective is so-so, but his experience with therapy (yes, really!) is a hoot, and his faithful demon, Mazekeen, is absolutely kick-ass and I love her a lot!

Best of all, perhaps, is the way that Lucifer is so upfront about who and what he is and watching all the humans around him try to turn into into something else – metaphor, delusion, etc. Waiting for the penny to drop for some of them is the least of what’s keeping me watching, but watching I am! More!! #SaveLucifer all the way!

First broadcast: 2015
Series: 3
Episodes: 13 @ ~42 mins each

My rating: 9/10

The Orville (season 1)

orville poster

Seth MacFarlane is well-known as the creator (and voice artist) of Family Guy, A Million Ways to Die in the West, and other showcases for his zany, un-politically correct humour. He now turns his attention to space and gives us his version of Star Trek.

Initial critics reviews were incredibly harsh, but thankfully a friend talked me into giving this a go – because it’s actually a lot of fun. It’s not poking fun at its source so much as paying homage while at the same time playing up some of the ridiculousnesses of the situations. While it never takes itself too seriously, it was surprisingly genuine and with ‘proper’ story lines, never falling into any hint of spoof.

The first episode is easily the weakest, focusing a lot on the break-up of Captain Ed Mercer’s (MacFarlane) marriage and the arrival of his ex-wife (Adrianne Palicki) as the new First Officer. Once this dynamic tails off, the series is a lot stronger for it.

And, as with all good sci-fi, there is actually a deeper moral to many of the storylines. Should a newborn baby be given corrective surgery to fit in with the rest of its culture? What about an alien race whose government is run by popular opinion? What are the real pitfalls of breaking the First Directive – something Star Trek seems to do regularly, with no real consequences.

Visually, there are a few indications that the budget here wasn’t super-high, but at the same time the CGI and makeup has been done well within its limitations and doesn’t distract at any point. And while, for instance, the gelatinous crew member isn’t absolutely hyper-realistically rendered, that’s more than forgivable for the sheer fact that the show has bothered with a non-humanoid crew member – because, why not?!

I not only really enjoyed this show as a light-hearted bit of sci-fi fun, but was actually quite impressed with how the ‘adult humour’ also allowed for some ‘adult level of thinking’ which was so often avoided to keep Star Trek appropriate for kids. Oddly, I actually believe in this society – and it looks both nice and a lot of fun!

First broadcast: December 2017
Series: 1 (2nd announced)
Episodes: 12 @ ~44 mins each

My rating: 8/10

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

Westworld (season 1)

Back in 1973, one of the robots (Yul Brynner) in a Wild West theme park went a bit berserk. Fast forward 40-plus years, and the new Westworld shows that sometimes revisiting old ideas really is a good idea, and that TV is no longer the poor cousin of the big screen. In fact, this 10-hour series shows that the mature format is a really excellent way of telling complex, layered stories.

Without giving too much away, Westworld is still a theme park – the theme park, a place where (very rich) people can go to live out their wildest fantasies. Want to shoot bad guys, play with the saloon girls, discover who you really are? Let the park’s ‘hosts’ (aka robots) cater to your every whim.

Meanwhile, we also get to see behind the scenes. The programmers, the behavioural specialists, the cleaner-uppers, all striving to make these automatons as real as possible. And that’s not ever going to go wrong, right?! o_O

I can’t praise this series highly enough. The cast is absolutely amazing, often called upon to display several different versions of their characters. The set design is outstanding, from the futuristic, rather sinister working areas, to the expanse of the old West in all its glory and otherwise. Oh, and the soundtrack: excellent original scoring, but then – wait, is that honky-tonk piano playing Radiohead?! Yup, and The Stones, The Cure, Soundgarden – it’s just another layer of ‘wow’ on a show that has been done *so* well!

Then there’s the plot. Westworld is one of those shows that is made to mess with your mind. From the opening scene, nothing is ever as it seems, challenging the viewer to question their expectations and perceptions – which is just so damned perfect for a show in which reality is absolutely up for question.

The mark of an amazing story, in any medium, is that it is something you can watch again and again. Westworld is a whole different place when you view it for a second time, knowing some of the ‘twists’, and I have no problem with the idea of watching it again, again (!), and probably picking up more every time.

Absolutely recommended!

First broadcast: October 2016
Series: 1
Episodes: 10 @ ~56 mins each

My rating: 10/10