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Archive for the ‘The Best Thing I Watched Last Week’ Category

Being a telly addict, I often have several series on the go at once. So understandably I get characters, plots or other details confused from time to time.  Especially when the genre of the shows are similar.

However, over this post-holiday week my goal was to finish not only Game of Thrones season 7, but also series 4 of Peaky Blinders. Who knew a medieval fantasy epic and a post WWI crime drama would have so much in common? I started to get a bit muddled going back and forth between the two programs and put it down to binge fatigue.  However, when I stopped to examine the situation more closely, I found it wasn’t just a middle-aged brain with too little sleep to blame. The two shows actually have more in common that you might expect.

What follows are just a few examples. (BEWARE! OODLES OF SPOILERS LIE AHEAD!)

1. Family Vendettas

Game of Thrones – Multiple blood feuds including Arya Stark avenging her family by poisoning the Freys

 

Peaky Blinders-The Changrettas ambush the Shelbys for a start

 

2. Characters who have second (or more) sight

Game of Thrones – Bran Stark- the Three-Eyed Raven

 

Peaky Blinders – Aunt Polly, especially since her brush with the noose

 

3. Fist Fights where the little guy wins

GOT- Theon Greyjoy finally grows a pair (figuratively, of course) and stands up for his kidnapped sister

 

Peaky Blinders- Tommy’s fighter Bonnie Gold faces an aptly named Goliath

 

4. Unexpected Resurrections

Game of Thrones – Dead Viserion = sad! Viserion reanimated by the Night King = bad!!!

 

Peaky Blinders – Arthur became the second Shelby fatality of the vendetta, or did he?

 

5. Aidan Gillen played a killer

Game of Thrones- The Irish actor gave his swan song as slimy manipulator Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish

 

Peaky Blinders- New character introduced this series, Romany hitman, Aberama Gold

 

They say there are only seven basic plots in storytelling, right? Additional comparisons are welcome as I’m sure I haven’t exhausted the list.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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image credit BBC Matt Squire

image credit BBC Matt Squire

 

This week I finally gave in to my curiosity and binge-watched the current BBC Two romantic comedy, Boy Meets Girl. I’d noticed this series mentioned in the Radio Times and on The British Comedy Guide, but was concerned about how a sitcom centered around a transgender woman and her blossoming romance would be handled. Currently in the US, programs chronicling the lives of transgender people are popping up all over reality TV and I was probably expecting a similar treatment in this show.

Well, I needn’t have worried because Boy Meets Girl is genuinely warm and witty. It’s a mainstream rom-com about the highs and lows inherent in a new relationship. You know, those first throes of infatuation, the constant smiling, butterflies  in the stomach and the wonder of the unknown balanced against meddling relatives, judgements by friends and strangers, the pressure of impressing a new love and the terror of the unknown.

Basically, Leo (Harry Hepple) is experiencing a rough patch. He’s been sacked for being too honest, his family is a bit of a handful and even blind dates avoid him probably due in part to his brother James’ (Jonny Dixon) misguided advice. That is until he encounters Judy (Rebecca Root) delivering a cake to the pub where he happens to be drinking alone. They strike up a conversation and hit it off very well despite their obvious age difference.

Both are smitten and agree to embark on a proper first date. Judy wastes no time in laying out the situation.

 

And this is why Judy is such a great character. She approaches her life with honesty and a healthy sense of humor. You immediately empathize with her vulnerability and the loneliness being born in the wrong body has imposed on her life. Fortunately she has a very loving mother, Peggy (Janine Duvitski) who, despite her eccentricities or perhaps because of them, is Judy’s biggest supporter.

 

In fact, most of the characters in this series are tolerant and likable as you just saw with Leo’s dad Tony (Nigel Betts) in the clip above. Leo and Judy’s siblings Jackie (Lizzie Roper) and especially James are starting to grow on me. It’s Leo’s mum Pam (Denise Welch) who I’m reserving judgment on. She badgers her husband and berates her unemployed sons, all in the name of love, but Pam’s motherly concern has led her down the wrong path when it comes to Leo’s new lady love.

 

I need to see how Pam reacts when the truth about Judy is finally revealed to make my mind up about this domineering matriarch.

I like the Newcastle setting and dialect (though I’m embarrassed to admit at first listen I thought Leo’s family was Welsh).  I have caught myself wondering how these families survive economically when it appears that Judy’s mother’s home-based cake baking business is her family’s main source of income. And while they allude to Tony having a job, we only ever see Pam working away at the hair salon. Neither of their sons, it has been established, are gainfully employed at the moment but they sure seem to go out a lot. Nitpicky, perhaps, but these are the kind of things I think about…

There is no doubt that without the casting of Rebecca Root, a transgender woman, this series would lack integrity. I was afraid this sitcom would be a scripted version of I Am Cait or I Am Jazz, just two of the transgender reality shows I alluded to earlier. However, it is Hepple and Root’s great chemistry that give it such heart. Boy Meets Girl is a sentimental romantic comedy, not a reality fix for inquiring minds.

 

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Jack and Victor are Still Game image credit BBC

Jack and Victor are Still Game
image credit BBC

After watching a half dozen episodes of this very amusing Scottish sitcom, I find it difficult to believe I had never heard of Still Game before. In fact, it took the recommendation of a stranger I ran into at work to discover its existence. (We started with an IT Crowd joke, one thing led to another, and ended with him finally letting me in on this little gem currently available on Netflix.)

Long-time friends Jack Jarvis (Ford Kiernan) and Victor McDade (Greg Hemphill) are widowers, pensioners and neighbors who live in a fictional district of Glasgow called Craiglang. They like a pint at their local, the Clansman; a free bus ride once in awhile; and they’re happy to help out a friend – as long as it doesn’t interfere with their drinking schedule.

 

Despite the fact that most of the actors in this series are actually decades younger than the characters they play, they do a great job addressing the issues of aging in society today. They tackle loneliness, abandonment, the slow but steady decline of the body and the inevitability of death. Still Game treats these topics at once with sensitivity and humor. For example, an elderly hospital patient wants to hear the song ‘Rose-Marie’ by Nelson Eddy before he passes so Jack, Victor and their friend Wilson do their best to fulfill his final request. As the first strains of the song begin, the man dies peacefully with his wife by his side and a smile on his face. A few seconds later, his newly minted widow, Agnes, bursts into the radio booth, furious with them that her husband’s last thoughts were of his mistress, Rose-Marie.

To be honest I haven’t watched many Scottish series mainly because the various Scots accents are the most difficult for me to decipher. Thank goodness US Netflix has subtitles! Though the bad news is that the streaming service only has series four and five available at this time. All the other episodes appear to be on YouTube sans closed captioning of course, but you can get the gist if you listen carefully. A helpful tip for American ears, ‘hoose” is “house” and “deed” is actually “dead”.

I’m a big dialect enthusiast so I always enjoy increasing my UK vocab. Still Game has taught me “Jeez-o”, “Och!” and probably the most oft used word in the whole show “Pish” (to urinate and also a similar meaning to the more English phrase “taking the piss”).

Most of the regular cast was unknown to me, but I have recognized a few of the guest stars so far; Robbie Coltrane as the Dial a Bus driver and Billy Boyd from Lord of the Rings‘ fame as a bearded man who encounters Jack and Victor in the train station. Jack and Victor’s friends include Isa (Jane McCarry) the town gossip, her employer Navid (Sanjeev Kohli) the owner of the corner news agents shop, Tam  (Mark Cox) the biggest cheapskate you’ll ever meet and the always obliging but down on his luck Winston (Paul Riley). This  quirky band of OAP’s will certainly make you chuckle, but they’ll also make you care about them which in turn makes the funny moments more sincere.

I was sad to learn that Still Game ended in 2007 and due to a falling out between the show’s stars and creators, Kiernan and Hemphill, the series will probably never be resurrected. Ah well, six series is a very good run for any series. If you never have, I hope you’ll pay a visit to these mischievous granddads who are just trying to enjoy the life they have left. If you’re from the UK and are familiar with the show, let me know how it’s regarded there.

Update: Still Game creators and stars Kiernan and Hemphill have reunited since I wrote this post a year ago. The newest series has just premiered in the UK this evening (October 7, 2016).

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Suranne Jones and Bertie Carvel in Doctor Foster image credit BBC Television

Suranne Jones and Bertie Carvel in Doctor Foster
image credit BBC Television

 

Perhaps I should call this weekly feature, The Most Promising Thing I Watched Last Week since it seems I’m always highlighting shows I’ve only just started to get into. With only one episode under my belt, the BBC’s Doctor Foster is the type of drama that can keep you glued to the edge of your seat or just as easily go too far over the top and ruin everything the first episode so cleverly established. I can only hope the excellent set-up is an indicator of the quality of the conclusion.

First off let me clarify that despite the misleading title, this is not a medical drama. Sure, Gemma Foster (Suranne Jones) is a GP, but what she does for a living is not really at the heart of the story. It is instead concerned with the nightmare of a woman whose ordered, comfortable life becomes a snarl of secrets and deception when she suspects her devoted husband Simon (Bertie Carvel) is seeing another woman.

Upon Simon’s return home from a business trip, Gemma chances upon a red lip balm in his pocket and a long blonde hair on his scarf. Innocent enough perhaps but these discoveries set off intuitive warning bells in Gemma’s mind which make her start to question every interaction and unaccounted for moment of her husband’s day. She tries to fight the paranoia at first especially when friends and colleagues try to reassure Gemma that her marriage is sound and her husband is trustworthy. But that nagging feeling remains so we witness her going through his phone, his desk at work and following him from his office only to learn he was visiting his mother in her care home.

Alas now that the possibility that Simon could be cheating on her has permeated her consciousness, Doctor Foster is a woman consumed with the thought that she has been wronged if only she can find the proof. As Gemma becomes more obsessed, her practice suffers and she engages in some quite unprofessional behavior all in aid of uncovering the truth about her marriage.

The apparent level of betrayal Gemma discovers at the end of the first episode is much worse than she (or we the viewers) could have anticipated. We can only expect her intelligent physician’s brain is turning at a breakneck pace to make sense of it all and work out a way to exact her revenge. As the poem says, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned…”

Suranne Jones does a spectacular job of making us experience her uncertainty, fear and anger. Bertie Carvel (one of my new favorite actors of late) makes me want to believe Simon is innocent but things are certainly looking bad for him at the moment. I think the remainder of the series has plenty of potential for a few twists before we learn what is really happening with Simon. With four more episodes remaining, I’m betting Gemma doesn’t just present her husband with the incriminating evidence and dare him to confess his infidelity.

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Tuppence (Jessica Raine) and Tommy (David Walliams) Beresford image credit Acorn and Endor Productions

Tuppence and Tommy Beresford, stylish sleuths in 1950’s Britain
image credit Acorn and Endor Productions

I have quite a few series on the go at the moment so it was sort of difficult to narrow down to a favorite this week. However since I happen to be making preparations for Mystery Month at the library where I work, I’ve kind of had Agatha Christie on the brain. (September 15th is the 125th anniversary of the famous mystery author’s birth, just in case you were wondering.) For that reason I have chosen Christie’s lesser known amateur detectives, married couple Tommy and Tuppence Beresford and their new Partners in Crime series as my pick of the week.

Tommy (David Walliams) and Tuppence (Jessica Raine) live in the suburbs with a son George (who is mostly away at boarding school) and a beautiful golden retriever who guards the house and roams the garden. Tommy is a devoted husband and a struggling entrepreneur. Cautious by nature, he’s just never found his niche, career-wise.  Tuppence, on the other hand, thinks fast on her feet and is always ready for an adventure. She pushes Tommy to take chances and together they make a good team.

The pair stumble into the spy game while on a train journey home from France when one of their fellow passengers disappears. Just to make things more interesting, it’s the Cold War era and Tommy’s uncle, Major Carter (James Fleet), happens to be the head of a branch of British Military Intelligence. After discovering that his nephew has already gotten tangled up in the government’s current spy crisis, Carter recruits Tommy and Tuppence to assist him in finding a mysterious Soviet assassin. Despite their lack of intelligence training, they move ahead anyway. The situation proves to be a challenge of Tommy’s fortitude and a source of excitement for his adrenaline junkie wife.

The series is made up of two three-part adaptations from the Christie novels, The Secret Adversary and N or M? As I was watching it, I immediately saw a different formula in these stories than what I have come to expect from the typical Marple or Poirot mystery. Partners in Crime is less a whodunit and more about finding the enemy spies before they can complete their mission. Agents who are killed are just “part of the game” and our hero and heroine find themselves in mortal danger on several occasions.  Also the violence and sordid side of life are more front and center here. Finally, whereas all the suspects know they’re being observed and accessed by Marple or Poirot, Tommy and Tuppence assume identities to do their sleuthing, constantly in danger of having their covers blown.

As far as performances go, I would single out Jessica Raine for her portrayal of the irrepressible Mrs. Beresford. Raine always seems at home in a period piece as if she is of a different age. Her characterization of Tuppence as fearless is believable; an admirable trait in a mother, but in a spy it’s indispensable (and in a Doctor Who companion as well…). I also felt Jessica picked up the slack when her co-star’s dramatic chops were lacking. David Walliams has many talents – sketch comedy, writing children’s books and swimming long distances are just a few. But when forced to tone down his campiness, his performances can go a bit flat and Raine was there always pumping up the energy.

Overall, I found Partners in Crime to be a nice mix of retro charm and suspense. I normally lose interest in traditional slow building spy thrillers, but PIC is faster paced than your normal espionage fare and the marital banter and nostalgic atmosphere help break the tension. There are a few good twists in the Secret Adversary story line, but I never  felt lost in an overly complicated cat and mouse plot. Not having read any of the corresponding novels, I can’t speak to how true they are to Christie’s narratives or characters, but I assume the spirit of the original tales are there.

If you want to check out the Tommy and Tuppence mysteries yourself, it’s just finishing up in the UK; however, episodes begin airing in the US on Acorn TV on September 3 with a new installment added each Thursday through October 1st.

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The international cast of Fortitude image credit Fifty Fathoms, Tiger Aspect and Sky Atlantic

Fortitude draws people from around the world with its bleak beauty
image credit Fifty Fathoms, Tiger Aspect and Sky Atlantic

 

I’ve only gotten three episodes into this psychological thriller, but from what I’ve seen thus far, Fortitude has certainly made me want to keep watching. For those of you who haven’t yet heard of this Nordic Noir series with lots of British accents, let me set the scene without giving too much of the mystery away.

Imagine a place were residents struggle with savage cold and months engulfed in darkness. Men, women and children carry rifles for protection from increasingly aggressive polar bears. Yet in the remote Arctic Norwegian community of Fortitude, crime is mercifully non-existent.

 

Or at least that used to be the case until a respected British researcher is found brutally murdered in his home. But who would want to kill this man described as a good and lovely person by everyone in town?  As you’d expect, there are a number of possible suspects and I assume more will surface in the course of the series.

Fortitude’s sheriff, Dan Anderssen, has never had to conduct a homocide inquiry and since the victim is a UK citizen, the London Metropolitan Police sends a forensic specialist to help with the investigation. Oddly enough he is an American, the enormously talented Stanley Tucci, who enters the case as a complete outsider to this close knit and secretive community. And it is through him that we learn about the dark side of Fortitude.

While the murder is front and center in this story, other important things are going on in the background. A young boy and his friend find what appears to be a mammoth tooth in some melting permafrost. Immediately after he returns home the lad faints and falls into a semi-coma. A well-known wildlife photographer is dying of terminal cancer and has a secret he shares with the sheriff. In addition, Fortitude has a open but unspoken swingers’ culture.

Though set in a Norwegian territory of the Arctic Circle, Fortitude is an international community brought together by its mining industry and environmental research center. The cast mirrors this diverse population with actors from Denmark, Spain, Romania, and Zimbabwe among others. This series, however, is first and foremost a UK based production and you will recognize many of the British actors popping up on your screen; Michael Gambon, Christopher Eccleston, Jessica Raines, Darren Boyd, Luke Treadway and Richard Dormer (a Northern Irish actor playing Fortitude’s Sheriff Anderssen).

Dan Anderssen, is a good cop or a bad cop? image credit Sky Atlantic, Fifty Fathoms and Tiger Aspect Productions

Dan Anderssen, is he a good cop or a bad cop?
image credit Sky Atlantic, Fifty Fathoms and Tiger Aspect Productions

 

Fortitude has already been recommissioned for a second series due out in 2016 so I assume the well-constructed mystery and taut story lines will continue for the remainder of the episodes I’ve yet to see.

Well, I’m going to get back to it. I hope to be able to fit in another episode or two before I turn in for the evening. If you haven’t binged on Fortitude, you can stream it on Amazon Instant Video or, like me, borrow the DVD set from your local library. If you have seen it, tell us what you thought of it – but no spoilers please!

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Detectorists and best mates Lance (Toby Jones) and Andy (Mackenzie Crook) image credit Channel X

Detectorists and best mates Lance (Toby Jones) and Andy (Mackenzie Crook)
image credit Channel X

The first time I watched Detectorists it was on YouTube. It was formatted so the picture filled up only about a third of the screen. The rest of the field was taken up with a frame emblazoned with the show’s name across the top. Despite the poor viewing conditions, it was still probably the best comedy I saw last year. In fact, it won the BAFTA for best situation comedy of 2014 and a second series is currently in production.

So when I heard this BBC series was coming to the US via Acorn TV with all six episodes available on August 17,  I was excited to watch it again in better quality and without the visual distractions.

Mackenzie Crook (off of The Office) is the series’ writer, director and star. He plays Andy, a metal detecting hobbyist and aspiring archaeologist. He and his best friend Lance (Toby Jones) share interests in, not only in finding non-ferrous metals buried in the English countryside, but also University Challenge, pub quizzes and playing Lance’s musical compositions at open mike nights.

Andy and Lance are members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, an odd mix of people who come together over their enthusiasm for unearthing old buttons, Matchbox Cars and shrapnel.

 

Other residents of Danebury are primary school teacher and Andy’s live-in girlfriend Becky (Rachael Stirling) who puts up with his hobby despite her total disinterest; Maggie (Lucy Benjamin), Lance’s ex-wife who runs a New Age shop and takes advantage of his lingering affection for her anytime she can; and Sophie (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) an alluring ancient history student who has been sniffing around Andy and Lance during their their excursions to find Saxon treasure on Bishop’s farm. Mr. Bishop ( David Sterne) is mad, by the way, but the eccentric gentleman takes a shine to the lads and gives Andy and Lance exclusive permission to search his land as long as they stay away from the paddock.

And finally enter the villains of the piece, the Antiqui-searchers. Nicknamed Simon and Garfunkel (aka Paul Cesar and Simon Farnaby) for their resemblance to the folk music duo, the pair tries everything in their power to get Andy and Lance, whom they see as unworthy amateurs, kicked off Bishop’s land and claim the permissions for themselves.

 

The Detectorists is a mature and gentle series, but that’s not to say it’s not smart. The humor stems from the characters’ preoccupation with their favorite pastime. Despite the chronic disappointment, Andy and Lance still dream of a historical find that will secure their reputations and make them rich in the bargain. In addition, Crook and Jones have great chemistry as friends who take the piss out of one another all the while knowing that their companionship is as important in beating back the drudgery of life as their avocation is.

I highly recommend this series to anyone who loves a subtle British comedy done well. No slapstick and not very edgy, but as satisfying as a good day detecting in the field.

 

 

 

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