Our new TV Eye column looks at the most compelling current small screen offerings and Getintothis’ Roy Bayfield gazes into the idiot’s lantern.
TV Eye is a new regular column focusing on the small screen, that strangely fascinating glowing thing that tells us endless stories, at the flick of a switch.
In this golden age of television, what’s glittering most brightly, which shows are 24-carat and which ones merely fool’s gold?
We’re unlikely to give updates on the wearisome antics of soap characters or to pick over the carcasses of disgraced celebrities. What we will do is shine a light on shows people are talking about – or would be talking about if they knew about them.
This month a universe-spanning batch of series has perked up our binge-wearied eyeballs.
Starting its journey is Picard, the latest foray into the Star Trek Universe – is there still life in the half-century old franchise?
Concluded and completed we have The Good Place; we look back at the philosophy-based comedy.
Continuing on its way we examine the appeal of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, now streaming its third part.
And coming from an unexpected direction we get on board a year-long journey with a Japanese boy band in Arashi’s Diary Voyage.
Star Trek: Picard (Amazon)
The latest Trek outing comes heralded with clever publicity including the rebranding of Piccadilly underground station. Not that much effort was needed to build excitement for the return of Patrick Stewart to the iconic role of Jean-Luc Picard.
Now it’s here. Two episodes in, our initial questions are getting answered: is it good sci-fi? Good Trek? Basically is it a good story?
We are introduced to a 90-year-old Picard retired living in his vineyard estate, retired from Star Fleet, regretting unfinished business. Older now, taking his Earl Grey tea decaf, sporting some spiffy futuristic old-guy knitwear.
We see him lost in recurring dreams of Data, his android friend and colleague, who died in Picard’s last screen outing the movie Star Trek: Nemesis. Dahj, a mysterious young woman, arrives seeking Picard’s help, initiating a mystery thriller plot involving synthetic humans, Romulan spies, and a search for Data’s legacy.
So far the story is unfolding at a steady, if not slow, pace, revealing new characters and unhurriedly launching plotlines. It’s a show to savour rather than an slam-bang action ride.
Stewart is compelling whenever he’s on screen, playing a man out of time, battling the effects of age and a system that sees him as an irrelevant relic.
In a poignant scene at Star Fleet headquarters, he has to spell out his name to a functionary of the reception desk, no longer the famed admiral but just another visitor needing an appointment.
Trying to get hold of a ship and crew to embark on his quest, Picard gets chewed out by Starfleet Commander in Chief Admiral Kirsten Clancy – his urgent need dismissed as “Sheer fucking hubris”. And yes, that f-bomb has been the subject of much online debate.
(It’s a rather meta fact that Ann Magnuson who plays Admiral Clancy was once in the band Vulcan Death Grip.)
As a tale it’s off to a promising start, certainly as engaging plot-wise as any good political thriller.
And it has resonance with the present day; CBS indicated that Picard “portrays a corrupted Federation, which has turned isolationist in response to a Romulan refugee crisis, caused by the destruction of their home world by a supernova in the year 2387” and Patrick Stewart has flagged that his performance of the character is “responding to the world of Brexit and Trump”.
Trek has always been progressive and idealistic, though never merely an allegory of current events. It will be interesting to see how overtly Picard reflects modern times.
So it’s a good story, but is it good sci-fi? The events of Star Trek: Picard certainly occur in a science-fictional setting, with spacefaring civilisations, synthetic humans and what-not. However the level of sf could feature in any present-day technothriller; it isn’t (yet) a show filled with thought-provoking concepts.
Because Picard is part of Star Trek, it isn’t just any piece of science fiction, it is part of a massive, multi-media franchise with a lengthy history and vast numbers of passionate fans.
Picard places itself firmly in the tradition. For those with an interest the plot has deep roots in previous series and films, and the show has a profusion of Easter eggs waiting to be spotted by fans with the eyes of Tarkalean hawks.
We know that various alumni of earlier Treks will appear: Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine, Marina Sirtis as Deanna Troi, Jonathan Frakes as Will Riker.
However it isn’t a reunion show – Picard is infused with Trek lore but not mired in it.
There is an indefinable feel of ‘real Trek’ to it, largely based on the presence of Patrick Stewart.
But the look and feel of the show are modern and differ from previous Treks. Some of this is style (the lens-flare-loving cinematography) and some of it detail (the fonts on the screens of IT devices aren’t the classic ones).
This can be disconcerting – we become so familiar with the style and setting of the long-running series that it is like a world we can step into, even live in. Seeing it made anew is like coming home and finding that a stranger has put up new wallpaper, reorganised the contents of the cupboards and ‘improved’ your record collection.
Like Picard we’re learning that you can’t go home again – but that new adventures beckon.
Star Trek: Picard is a modern show and at the same time a tale as old as storytelling – the stranger arriving at the door with a call to adventure; the ageing hero who must set out once again on a quest; the world that needs to be renewed.
- Verdict: Very promising launch of a show that could be great.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (Netflix)
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has achieved the coveted second-season milestone, following on from a first season released in two parts in 2018 and 19.
Sabrina takes place in the same world as knowing, moody mystery Riverdale and forthcoming musical drama Katy Keene. All these properties originate from Archie Comics where these characters were originally perky humorous teens in a bright unthreatening world.
Archie Comics have never had much traction in the UK, and the original-form characters certainly aren’t embedded in our pop culture knowledge the way they are in the US. We have glimpses of them from The Archies evergreen novelty hit Sugar Sugar and 90’s Sabrina sitcom, but they aren’t exactly household names.
So these Riverdale Universe shows are ‘adult dark remakes’ of source material most UK viewers have little knowledge of. As an analogy, imagine an R-rated live-action, blood-spattered, sex-drenched version of The Bash Street Kids from The Beano.
But for us Sabrina needs to stand alone, which it certainly does.
Sabrina Spellman, played compellingly by Kiernan Shipka is a teenage half-witch, half human. She lives with two witch aunts, motherly Hilda (Lucy Davis) and stern Zelda (Miranda Otto). There’s a ‘Church of Night’, an Academy of Unseen Arts, a Dark Lord. It’s a bit like Harry Potter with more actual Satan.
The episodes comprise often-gory supernatural adventures wrapped around teenage coming-of-age themes.
Sabrina is a souped up Munsters calibrated for modern pop sensibilities.
It all takes place in a shadowy world richly saturated with colour, giving everything a hyped-up decadent look.
Sabrina‘s supernatural world is an inversion of our own, with its Church of Night and worship of Lucifer, existing alongside normal everyday places. Sabrina lives in both of these worlds and has to make moral choices of her own, outside either of them.
For Sabrina ‘evil’ isn’t necessarily bad – it’s the powerful scheming adults and the forces that act to capture or suppress the young woman’s spirit, that are the real adversaries.
The new season kicked off on January 24 and starts with a journey to Hell. Having progressed beyond the setup stage it’s beginning to feel like business as usual – a show you’re either on board with or not.
Like a Punch and Judy show, what happens is often horrific yet feels curiously consequence-free. Despite strong performances, particularly by Shipka, it is hard to engage beyond the surface.
- Verdict: Stylishly done and worth a look, you’ll know if you like it after a couple of episodes.
The Good Place (Netflix)
After a three year journey The Good Place comes to an end with an emotional and satisfying finale. Parks and Recreation creator Michael Schur set out to write a show dealing with fundamental questions of human existence, and succeeded in creating a truly exceptional work of art.
The Good Place is one of those series that points the way to completely new types of TV storytelling – funny, intelligent and addictive, with subject matter no-one can have expected.
Avoiding all spoilers, we can say that it’s a story about the afterlife where good people go. Eleanour Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) realises she must be there under false pretences as in life she was self-absorbed and basically horrible, but obviously doesn’t want to end up in ‘the Bad Place’. So she enlists the help of Chidi (William Jackson Harper), a professor of ethics and moral philosophy, to learn how to be a better person.
The ‘Good Place’ is depicted with no overtly religious trappings – a sanitised, wholesome, cheerily-coloured neighbourhood where residents can get anything they want just by asking for it. Specially if what they want is any flavour of frozen yogurt.
Being the ‘good’ place (and a 15 rated show) swear words are automatically translated into innocent ones, which is why ‘Holy Motherforking Shirtballs!’ t-shirts are a thing here in the pre-afterlife.
It doesn’t take an expert in narrative theory to predict that the too-nice-to-be true place isn’t as good as it seems, and over 51 episodes adventures ensue as a core group of characters (socialite Tahani (Jameela Jamil), DJ and harmless smalltime criminal Jason (Manny Jacinto), architect of the Good Place Michael (Ted Danson) and programmed provider of all needs and knowledge Janet (D’Arcy Carden) along with Eleanour and Chidi) seek to find the actual good place – or rather to find what it means to be a good person.
Along the way concepts like Kant’s moral imperative and Locke’s theory of personal identity are revealed as surprising comedy gold in four seasons of short cliffhanger-punchlined episodes.
A comedy themed around moral philosophy might not sound too promising but The Good Place has a light touch, likeable characters and a reliably high level of gag content.
It’s a tribute to performers when they can produce genuine, affecting performances in a totally non-realistic setting and Bell, Danson, Jamil, Carden, Harper and Jacinto are excellent.
The finale came at the right time. There didn’t need to be more Good Place, but the emotive revelatory conclusion was nevertheless a sad parting on many levels.
The Good Place is a hopeful creation – showing as it does that our small acts of kindness do ultimately matter.
- Verdict: An unmissable classic.
Arashi’s Diary Voyage (Netflix)
We’re two eps in to Arashi’s Diary Voyage, a year-long 20-part documentary about the fantastically successful Japanese boy band, and we’re confused.
Either this is the most mind-meltingly boring watch ever conceived, or it’s totally compelling and addictive.
Maybe it’s both,
It doesn’t matter if you aren’t familiar with any of Arashi’s 409 songs (which you might not be, even though they have sold many, many millions and include 51 number one hits) – because we get to see clips from all 409 of them in a jaw-dropping 5-minute montage segment.
In this rapid-fire kaleidoscope we see the idols in video after video, stadium after stadium, winched through the air, dancing on vast platforms, waving from strange illuminated vehicles, throwing shapes in front of waterfalls, fireworks, waterfalls of fireworks…
A cut-up life in front of an ocean of fans, visible mainly as an enormous constellation of lightsticks (customised for each tour and colour-coded for favourite band members.)
This rapid-fire sequence downloads Arashi into our brains with overwhelming efficiency. It’s like a sweeter version of the behavioural programming film that Alex is forced to watch in A Clockwork Orange.
We quickly learn that the band is embarking on their 5×20 tour, to celebrate their 20th anniversary – and that after the tour concludes, they will start a hiatus. This, then, could be their last rodeo.
Like most boy bands the myth that fans consume is that of a group of young men having FUN. The myth is fed through countless smiley photoshoots and interviews, as well as the relentlessly upbeat music and stage demeanour.
In Diary Voyage we see behind the scenes, the day job that makes all this happen – lengthy planning sessions in what looks like a cross between a warehouse and a war-room, weary banter between people who’ve been together too long, sudden moments of febrile playfulness.
It’s a fascinating insight into the processes involved in huge choreographed multimedia pyrotechnic shows. At the same time it’s like a normal workplace – with blocking out dance moves for a sequence on a ‘magic bridge’ the chore of the day.
What will happen as the year unfolds? With the jeopardy of the impending hiatus, how will legions of fans react as the shows happen? Will the tight unit of five hold together?
On the surface and in public the Arashi members seem in accord about the hiatus. Individual interviews show a different story – verbal images of ending in burnout, of ‘taking something you truly love and attempting to strangle it to death’.
This could be an interesting journey.
- Verdict: Has to be seen, if only as a life experience.