Nicholas Goodchild

Historic and Pared Down

Gotham

25 September 2014 by Nicholas in TV

Gotham is Fox’s new series set after the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents in the Batman milieu. It’s developed by Bruno Heller of The Mentalist and the first episode was directed by Danny Canon. It’s somehow much less than the sum of its parts and leaves you feeling unfulfilled.

The first scene introduces a neophyte Catwoman and unfortunately encapsulates the shortcomings of the show: her movements are exaggerated and clearly not something the actress is comfortable doing, the action is confusingly staged and shows the limitations of the director and the budget and it comes across as far less impressive then you feel they were aiming for.

There is a power demonstration scene featuring James Gordon and a madman in the police precinct. The precinct looks beautiful and brings to mind Blade Runner. The actual events are so stupid they make your head hurt. It sets out to show the police force as sloppy and unafraid of oversight and shows Gordon as decent and his partner as complacent and definitely not by the book. As someone with a passing familiarity with the comics I do wonder why they used one character as his partner’s basis rather than another (one used by Nolan in his far superior take) that would fit better.

Bruce Wayne’s parents’ murders somehow feels wrong. It doesn’t feel mythic, I’m not at all convinced by the take on Wayne himself, the staging is wrong and the direction doesn’t focus on a detail that soon becomes very important. It also changes details that add layers of complications where none are needed.

Which is one of the central problems with the show: so much is being shoe horned in and interconnected when it really doesn’t need to be. Not everything has to link to characters that we already know and try to give us nascent versions of them. Too much happens and too quickly, and there isn’t a steady enough hand at the tiller to make us accept it. Things need to be stripped down and decompressed, characters don’t have to be shoe horned in and the actors don’t need to try forcing it.

The guy who plays Jim Gordon looks a lot like Russell Crowe. It’s distracting and makes it completely clear what the casting department was going for. He’s overly noble and some of his later actions defy belief. His fiancée is very telegenic but ultimately just there to serve the plot (and subject to one of the contrivances I think hamstrings the show). Various other characters aren’t particularly interesting or well done, with the exception of the mob boss, Falcon and Wayne’s butler (who is the only actor I can name, although there are a couple I recognise).

I may try watching a future episode out of boredom, but I have no interest in seeing the next one. It’s too frustrating a show and too many things about it don’t sit right with me.

Tagged with batman, gordon, gotham, tv

The Apprentice 7th May 2013

8 May 2013 by Nicholas in TV

The British version of The Apprentice is back and Alan Sugar seems more bad tempered with fewer rehearsed lines. The would be businessmen and women performing to impress him have either been coached to be bad parodies of stereotypes or are unremittingly awful. Or both. So, naturally, it made for entertaining TV.

I’m convinced the structure of each episode is determined by what happens at the end of the episode. Who goes is decided by Sugar from 3 people: the leader of the losing team and 2 people they have identified as responsible for the failure of the task. Therefore enough has to be shown that at least one of these appears a reasonable (but not runaway) choice.

Moreover, in order to create any suspense, which team lost the task should be debatable and possibly even a shock. Thus the editors of the program have to pick about 40 minutes of footage from at least 32 hours of footage (2 sub teams each from 2 main teams for at least 8 hours of activity.) They also have to make it entertaining. What they don’t have to do is make it balanced, fair or representative.

Last night was a good example: one team was made to look rife with internal conflict which would make them unlikely to win in order for their result to be more of a surprise. On the losing side one moment was massively emphasised just to justify someone’s presence in the bottom 3. There were probably dozens of similar or more significant moments throughout the day that escaped being aired just because they had no thematic link to the eventual decision.

The task itself also seemed slightly dishonest. Nothing teams were supposedly given a full container of mixed products from China to sell over the course of 16 hours. Leaving aside I’m surprised some of the items could be shipped that distance cost effectively considering their bulk, ease of production and low value, there clearly was nothing like a container’s worth of product to be disposed of.

The teams supposedly tried selling against their theoretical RRP. Some of which were clearly massively inflated in order to convince the end customer they were saving money rather than buying anything of intrinsic value.

The task really should have focused on profit. Ridiculous and time consuming decisions were made that had me rolling my eyes. Trying to sell products to the wrong customers exacerbated this. And repeatedly over valuing one particular line made me wonder if anyone knew their true costs.

But it was compelling. I don’t know who I like yet but I have a fair idea who I can’t stand. Everything moves at a fair lick and there’s the certain knowledge there are things you can do better than people who consider themselves exceptional. It’s not how business really works and that is what helps to make it so entertaining. Just don’t believe it and don’t take it seriously. That’s what straight fiction is for.

If Comics Were Like TV

15 March 2013 by Nicholas in TV

Comics are an utterly unique medium but a lot of people try to make them more like TV shows. It’s a mistake, but it got me wondering: what if comics were more like TV shows?

– Everything Marvel does would be reprints for a month if DC has a tentpole Summer event.

– Reality comics that manage to be more unrealistic than mutants in space aided by time travelling alternate reality versions of themselves who came back from the dead multiple times.

– A greater variety of genres, but at least a third of comics would just be about making comics or other comics. Probably half of these would feature a murder.

– Who performed at the half time of the Summer crossover would be more talked about than the crossover itself.

– The nagging feeling you recognise background characters from other comics but can’t think where from.

– Creators would have to step in to draw certain supporting characters to keep their appearance consistent resulting in a jarring mish mash of art.

– Wolverine drawn mid torso upwards to hide the fact he got fat but has a long contract.

– Ridiculous plot twists to stave off cancellation (oh, wait a second . . .)

– Villains of the week (hang on again . . .)

Doctor Who – The Snowmen

26 December 2012 by Nicholas in TV

It’s really hard to fairly review Doctor Who – The Snowmen without spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. The good bits tend to hinge on the plot, which can’t really be revealed because part of the joy is the way it unfolds. It’s the annual Christmas special episode of Doctor Who, and it feels a lot more substantial than any I can remember.

Usually Christmas specials sit in their own little pockets of continuity. They’re not part of larger story arcs, neither ending nor starting them and very rarely even referencing them. They take place on Earth or an Earth analogue, have characters and plots that are of no import to the series as a whole and tend to being overly sentimental.

This is probably not the case in Snowmen. Here we see a Doctor badly hurt (arguably too affected) by the preceding series and surrounded by characters we have seen before. Moreover, the characters are fleshed out to the extent where we can hazard a guess that we will very likely see them again.

The characters are the episode’s greatest strengths: the dialogue crackles, the Silurian and her wife are made 3 dimensional and interesting, the Sontaran even manages to rise above the level of comedy relief and gets some great lines. And then there’s Clara.

If you haven’t seen the previous series you won’t know why Clara is important (although I am in the minority in thinking the ending of that particular episode telegraphed its ending). If you don’t watch this episode then you won’t know how she is important and how much the following series is going to hinge on her. Moffat pulls out all the stops to make her likeable, and it is his fine character work throughout the episode that is perhaps to the detriment of the overall story.

That’s not to say the story is wholly bad: even viewed in isolation it is above most of the Christmas specials. But it’s relatively straightforward and glosses over a rather large plot hole for the sake of convenience. There are ideas that recur from previous episodes (but they’re good ones) and the villains never come across as quite as threatening or scary as perhaps they could. It isn’t that the story isn’t dark, but not in the way you may entirely expect.

There are great moments of humour too. And, for once, not limited to the Doctor and his dialogue. For once he is the straight man to the great character work being done around him. He’s too human, but also too distant. He’s hurting and his feelings are actually responsible for the plot unfolding as it does.

And the new Tardis debuts. It looks brilliant. The only real reservation I have had about the past few series done away in a single shot. Unfortunately the new reworking of the theme is trying too hard.

Doctor Who – The Angels Take Manhattan

3 October 2012 by Nicholas in TV

The current run of Doctor Who took a break with the episode “The Angels Take Manhattan” which had been widely trailed as featuring the final farewell for the Doctor and his current travelling companions, Amy and Rory Williams/Pond.

It featured the return of the Weeping Angels, who are arguably the finest Doctor Who villains, but have been less effective with each appearance. I was struck, on reflection, about how similar they are to the Alien trilogy in implementation: Blink (their introduction) was effective horror against a small number of villains of unknown capabilities and motivation. Their second appearance had them as a known quantity in much greater numbers facing against a trained squad dedicated to killing them. This time they’re facing against the unarmed but desperate, a smaller and less epic tale heavy with personal sacrifice and fittingly final. Until someone brings them back and botches it utterly.

The main story, arguably, is incidental compared to what is happening to the characters. The Angels have been chosen because of their capabilities and the way that this leads to dramatic moments. Or the dramatic moments are catered around the Angels. Or Moffat knows that it is time to bring all his best creations together. It doesn’t matter, it is a real high spot for the show as a whole in a way that the largely mediocre episodes of the recent demi season could never manage.

The story ties back to both the Ponds’ own, with references to how Rory perpetually waits for Amy and also the fact he has died for her in the past, as well as the introduction of the Angels themselves in Blink. In Blink the best moments (besides the sheer terror elicited by stone statues, a menace that Doctor Who has never managed as effectively before or since) deal with how the Angels actions are predicted and how best to deal with them. In Manhattan, the Doctor is once again dealing with tips from the past (which is also the future), although this time he is receiving rather than giving them. It’s a clever inversion and helps to tie everything together.

The Ponds story also finishes, but not in a way that ties up every lose end or is as neat as I was expecting. There are possibilities left open, although the coda at the end gives everything a rosier glow than a more ambiguous ending would. Part of me feels it is a cheat, but then again I have to remember that it is a kids’ show and that it did make me feel emotions I never thought it could. And the very end also ties back to the introduction of both this iteration of the Doctor and Amy Pond herself. It’s an emotionally satisfying end for Amy, the end of a chapter for the Doctor, has some great ideas and makes the Angels special and scary again.

Breaking Bad

1 October 2012 by Nicholas in TV

Breaking Bad Series 4 is now available on DVD. I would highly recommend it with one caveat: you have to have seen the first three series to actually know what is going on and get the best from it.

Breaking Bad starts as a middle aged man, on discovering he has cancer, rebels against his largely unfulfilling life and decides to become a manufacturer of meth amphetamine. Now, he is a college graduate who has become a high school chemistry teacher, so his ability isn’t too much of a stretch. On a bust with his DEA agent brother in law he realises how much money is to be made making the drug and, seeing a former student escape the raid, he has a route in.

Over the next few series his decision has ramifications that he could never have imagined and alliances are made, betrayed, problems manifest and are overcome, and he learns much about how he is prepared to behave and truths about himself, those around him and the world at large. It’s frequently compelling television, even if it does seem to start relatively sedately and almost predictably.

But series 4 is where it gets really, really good. It’s the pay off for plot threads that have been placed throughout the first three series and the point where Walter White (the former high school chemistry teacher who has become a sought after drug maker) reaches both his nadir and his zenith. He has been transformed from the humble family man beaten by the world into a truly desperate creature who is only just working out what he is truly capable of. There were shocks in previous series, and the show is rarely less than watchable, but the last 3 episodes of series 4 are compelling in a way that the climax of the first Godfather film is.

Over the first 3 series White (and his partner, and their support network) go from amateurs trying to find a way to make some money to real criminals, with the change in expectation and ethics that this brings. They go from incompetence to greater heights and the climax of 4 is White fighting for his very life while trying to control his destiny. It’s compelling and beautiful.

Breaking Bad is mature in the best way: it doesn’t layer profanity, violence or sex onto a simplistic morality tale, it has protagonists who are despicable and every character is flawed and has traits to be abhorred. No one is perfect and there are no heroes, and those that we find ourselves identifying with are often the most corrupt and least admirable. And the true shocks are not from violence or events, but the decisions and emotions that cause them. It’s high opera and drama that exists from extreme situations and interesting characters. And this is where it comes together perfectly.

Bad Education

28 August 2012 by Nicholas in TV

Bad Education, a new sitcom on BBC Three, fervently hopes you have either never seen Teachers or found it too long or subtle. Teachers was (for the first three series, at least) a very funny comedic drama about a group of teachers at an inner city comprehensive. Bad Education is more of a sitcom, with more broadly defined characters, a stack of cyphers and running jokes after just two episodes.

Bluntly, it isn’t very good. Where Teachers would exaggerate for comedic effect and have moments of absurdity in the background, Bad Education doesn’t even seek to attempt anything like realism. While this isn’t necessarily a detriment to comedy, it completely wrecks any attempts at character moments and leaves precious little else to hold the viewer’s attention when the comedy elements are (as they often fail to be) crushingly unfunny.

The main character is a posh teacher with webbed feet who allows himself to be bullied by pupils, is lazy, incompetent and has a crush on another teacher. We’re meant to care about the fact he has a crush and sympathise with him, but the situations he finds himself in means it is impossible to take him seriously and he is so annoying that i find myself wishing that something dreadful befalls him. Preferably something dreadful and genuinely funny.

And that is the main problem with the show: the jokes aren’t funny enough and there are too few of them. That’s not to say that there is a large gap between each joke. On the contrary: often they run one after the other or even at the same time. The problem is they are usually the very same joke, done with varying degrees of ineffectiveness, that really don’t get any more welcome through extreme repetition.

The other characters, too, are deeply annoying. The two authority figures are every bad character from every bad British sitcom (tellingly, nearly all of them commissioned by the BBC) over the last 30 years. The love interest is so wet and uninteresting it is impossible to tell why anyone would actively pursue her. And the protagonist’s behaviour around her completely vomitous.

Hopefully Bad Education won’t be recommissioned. We have a strong tradition of humorous school based comedy in this country: from Tom Brown to Molesworth, via Teachers and the recent Inbetweeners. This doesn’t follow that proud tradition and is merely one of those sitcoms on the BBC that inexplicably exists. Unfortunately they also have an annoying and utterly confusing habit of also being renewed.

Episodes

20 July 2012 by Nicholas in TV

Episodes is a meta sitcom about two writers of a British sitcom adapting it for the American market. The US network that picks it up decides to make some changes to make it a more commercial proposition, arguably gutting what made it successful in the first place. One of the changes is the casting of Matt LeBlanc as the lead, with LeBlanc playing a distorted version of himself.

The program mainly takes place behind the scenes during the creation of the show, and if there is one thing the media loves it is stories about itself. As a TV show it has moments of savagery, swearing and some black jokes. These are all good things that almost make up for the sentimentality and saccharine moments. I don’t know if I am alone in this (I certainly hope not) but I really hate it when sitcom writers think we care enough about the characters to substitute character moments in lieu of actual jokes. I have no problem with character being revealed, but it is nearly always done badly and with no genuine humour. It’s a bloody sitcom, I demand jokes. That’s the implicit contract between me and the makers.

But Episodes is sometimes good. LeBlanc very bravely plays an absolute bastard. Who happens to be called Matt LeBlanc and have formerly appeared on the successful sitcom friends and the spin-off series Joey. He’s also a selfish womaniser with dreadful impulse control. As a celebrity who is arguably the sole selling point in America, it’s a brave move to lampoon himself and to do so mercilessly. I would hope that the audience appreciates that it is a fiction wrapped in his own personal circumstance, but I do wonder what it will do to his image.

Stephen Mangan is also quite funny and likable. Tamsin Greig gets to play a slightly neurotic and annoying character. Most of the Americans seem to be caricatures. There aren’t enough jokes overall and the running jokes don’t become any funnier through repetition. On the plus side there doesn’t seem to be the American humour staple of mistaking a wacky situation for actual comedy.

The best episode, by far, centres around the death of the showrunner’s father. It’s deliciously bad taste and uses character moments to comedic effect rather than as substitutes for comedy. The etiquette of funerals, the reality of social climbing in the context of grief, inappropriate communication, mocking the disabled and poor taste combine to make an episode that is frequently very funny. Unfortunately every other episode of the two series around it fails to hit the same standards. 14 Episodes across two seasons that are sporadically amusing and one of high quality isn’t quite enough to recommend the show.

The Newsroom

16 July 2012 by Nicholas in TV

The Newsroom is Aaron Sorkin’s new TV series set in the world of cable news. It echoes the West Wing, although I have to admit that I prefer it so far. As someone who bought the first two series of West Wing on DVD on a recommendation, watched them all and then never watched them or any subsequent episodes ever again, this may not be the strongest recommendation possible.

The Newsroom starts promisingly: in the first episode Will McAvoy is attending a debate between a Republican and liberal Democrat (in the American sense) at a college and fielding questions from the crowd and the debate moderator. McAvoy is a successful TV news anchor, and charming, but doesn’t commit himself to a political stance or to saying anything controversial.

He is hounded for an answer to a trite question by the moderator and, seeing a familiar face in the crowd, his mask slips and he actually says what he means. It’s a stirring moment, the monologue is brilliant, and you can feel the hush descend on the crowd. Unfortunately it is the climax of the episode and the rest doesn’t come close to those heights.

The remainder of the episode deals with the fall out from McAvoy’s outburst: his changing staff on his show, his perceived new direction and how his audience react to it. It also descends into sentimentality and seems a little too cosy and unchallenging. It’s well done for what it is, but it isn’t great and it has that same sort of familiarity and contrivance that spoilt the West Wing for me.

The second episode is far less good. It mainly hinges on an unsuccessful news broadcast and how poor news gets delivered and why. There isn’t really anything in the way of a great moment, no snappy dialogue and the point it makes it chooses to beat us over the head with.

The third episode is where I decide I will stick around for the long run. Again, it makes a point and rather labours it. But it actually has some great moments along the way and sets up some great conflicts: Will being kept in the dark by his boss, his boss arguing with the board, Will setting the company he works for against the incoming Congress and the company he works for plotting to find a way to discredit him. It sets up a lot of underlying plots for the upcoming episodes and hopefully will amount to something as the series progresses rather than being ignored.

Castle

17 May 2012 by Nicholas in TV

Castle is an ABC show that stars Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic. It’s as hackneyed a concept as you can imagine: a mystery writer is drafted in by the NYC police to help with a case that seems to be based on one of his books. While working on the case he develops a crush on the detective that is handling the case and insinuates himself into the department through his contacts.

Ostensibly a romantic comedy with some police procedural thrown in, Castle sometimes suffers from tonal clash and seeming uneven. It also tends towards formula, with it being entirely possible to work out whether a suspect is guilty or not purely based on how far through the episode the police investigate him.

Every crime is neatly solved and I find it hard to believe the reasoning and “evidence” would actually stand up in a court of law. This is, of course, purely incidental: Castle is a showcase for Nathan Fillion and a romantic comedy, everything else is more or less window dressing.

Fillion plays a man child with problem exes who nonetheless surrounds himself with women: his failed actress mother and precocious daughter. He chases after a smart and independent woman while occasionally being distracted by women who serve as little more than blocking characters and plotting devices. It isn’t really trying to be high art or even a particularly good example of its genre. That’s ok, sometimes I feel like slumming it.

The show has enough of interest in the window dressing elements (even if I do find some characters, especially the mother, annoying) and some neat conceits for some of the cases to make it watchable. And it has Nathan Fillion. It’s a guilty pleasure.

Stana Katic is just about believable. She has a long running sub plot about the death of her mother which isn’t particularly plausible and the series normally has one of its tonal problems whenever it revisits it. As the seasons have progressed it has played a larger and larger part and got more and more convoluted and unlikely. Which is a shame. The show works best when it is being light-hearted and focused on its gimmicky crime of the week. When it tries to do anything more it finds itself struggling under a dramatic weight it can’t sustain and that it is particularly unsuited to.

The other characters are pretty much either there to serve the plot or provide comic relief. Or both. Although there is a large cast, there is precious little for most of them to do and even less in the way of rounded characters on display. So, really, it all comes down to your tolerance of the stars and your stomach for gimmickry.