YELLOWJACKETS // s01

Brilliant.

Kicking off with one of the strongest pilots in recent memory, Yellowjackets splits a narrative between a girls’ soccer team whose plane goes down in the mountains during the 90s, and the lives of the survivors in the present day.

It’s ominous, foreboding, and gives you enough information upfront to know that things are going to get bad, before expertly dancing back and forth between the time periods.

The soundtrack is fantastic, the production value is top-notch, the editing is masterful.

The performances too deserve special mention — the cast are excellent, but Juliette Lewis and Christina Ricci are bringing career-best character work to their roles.

There’s a tonne more intrigue left, with plenty of clever misdirects and setups. Some of the gore is not for the faint of heart.

An absolutely stellar first season, here’s hoping it can maintain.

Highly recommended.

FOUNDATION // s01

It’s long been held that Isaac Asimov’s titanic science fiction book series Foundation could not be adapted. As it stands, it still hasn’t been.

There are ten fairly short novels comprising Foundation, the bulk of which are made up of anthologised tales of men in rooms discussing historical events in extraordinarily dry fashion. They’re fascinating reads, absolutely, but they don’t make for exciting television.

The Apple+ series counterbalances this by altering the characters and the narratives to focus on some of the action of the various conflicts, however in doing so it fundamentally alters what Foundation is.

The problems come when the cold, clinical narratives about predictive models of mathematics and “psycho-history” from the novels are adapted somehow into storylines that border on mysticism and the supernatural, while handwaving away what should be hard explanations as simply fatalism cloaked in “very fancy maths”.

In the novels, the moral is that individual actions are essentially meaningless against the tide of culture and time. Humanity as a large-scale movement in eminently predictable in its behaviours, and individuals are not be able to alter this course, only adapt and prepare for its eventualities.

In the show, individuals shift and alter events, and talk of mathematical predetermination on granular scale. They have visions and talk about fate and higher individual purpose. It’s a complete inversion of the point and emphasis of the books, and as such, Foundation still cannot be said to have been adapted.

There is certainly some fantastic work going into this. The cast are excellent, the effects and designs are extremely well executed. Some of the concepts presented are fascinating.

As an original, standalone sci-fi series, it’s pretty decent for the most part. But as an adaptation, it fails, and it fails hardest when it deviates furthest from the source material.

Read the books instead.

SUCCESSION // s01-03

Arrested Development, if it wasn’t a comedy.

Of course, Succession is still actually billed as a comedy, though it’s so massively steeped in its satire while it plays totally straight. The humour comes from just how nightmarishly awful this family is—doubled again because it feels like it could be a biopic series about the Murdochs or the Packers. Even the Trumps are more comical in real life than the fictional Roy family.

We follow the Roys during a time of upheaval at their massive media conglomerate. It’s a family affair, so the question is: which of the three children (the fourth is so blissfully useless as to be entirely out of the question) will come to take over the top job.

Problem is, Logan Roy is an absolute c***, and nobody is more aware of this than Logan Roy. Each season becomes an exercise in seeing him psychologically twist and ruin each of his children in turn as they vie for his favour and position.

The real masterwork is in seeing how the writing can make you loathe each of them, but then come to pity them, until it wants you to remember that not a single one of them actually has any redeeming qualities they wouldn’t sell out in an instant.

And they frequently. It’s non-stop scheming, manipulation and power plays. In three seasons it has never once been made clear what any of them actually does in their job.

It’s absolutely compelling, fascinating, and blackly hilarious.

Highly, highly recommended.

COWBOY BEBOP (2021)

It’s not bad!

Look, it’s missing a bit of the punch and slickness of editing and action that made the anime series so memorable, but the cast is great, the soundtrack bops and it’s mostly a fun, silly scifi romp.

Not without its criticisms, however. The extension of the villain’s story does little to establish him as a credible threat, and some of the VFX look very unfinished. Action can be kind of stitled, which is a shame because it has glimmers of real creativity and excellence that shine through and unfortunately serve to highlight the flaws.

But mostly the characterisations are fun, albiet slightly different takes to the original. If you want slavish dedication to the source material, just rewatch the anime. The prime three (John Cho, Daniella Pineda and Mustafa Shakir) are all totally on point for this interpretation.

My main disappointment was that the show didn’t adhere to the brilliant sylisation of the promotional segments, or at least leaned harder into some kind of hyper-realism to make it pop. That could have been truly special.

If you’re willing to take this on its own terms, it’s a totally serviceable space action adventure.

Good, not great.

ARCANE // s01

A high water mark for animation, bringing fantastic art design and execution to a rich and detailed fantasy world.

From my understanding, knowledge of League of Legends (the game franchise this is based on) is unnecessary, and it certainly seems interested in making itself both accessible and engaging.

Action is kinetic and complimented by exceptional VFX work. Characters are complex, and their relationships shift and change to keep you wondering who will survive, ally, betray. It’s a big cast, but it’s very well balanced, even when it occasionally feels like it’s spreading itself thin across too many threads.

Plenty has already been said about the stunning visual style, and it’s all warranted. Better though, the story feels like it barely scratching the surface of a huge world.

Already renewed for a second season, and incredibly promising.

Highly recommended.

FORTITUDE // s01-03

Starts out as a prestigiously cast Scandinavian Noir mystery before taking a left turn into body horror, then another left turn into a supernatural conspiracy thriller, and then running right through the wall of credulity and off a cliff into the sea.

By the end of the third season it’s lost its plot so thoroughly and bafflingly that it’s hard to know exactly what the overarching intention had been. Was it always going to devolve into Twin Peaks wannabe territory, without the coherence of vision at David Lynch can manage?

The sudden third act introduction of de-aging billionaire strangers, BDSM jokes, absurd changes in characterisation across the board and a saxophone score that feels ripped right from the hammiest 80’s soap opera all stands in stark contrast to the self-serious dramatic tone of the first season.

Thing is, that first season is an absolute banger. It’s got all the atmophere and mystique you want in a small town murder mystery, propped up by the likes of Stanley Tucci, Christopher Eccleston, Michael Gambon and The Killing’s Sofie Gråbøl.

Season two sees Dennis Quaid, Michelle Fairley and Robert Sheehan join the cast, but things start losing their way. You’ll probably be able to ride the goodwill from the first season’s execution right through to the end of part two—a bizzare conclusion involving weird swings at both shamanism and Russian life-extension experiments.

Still sounds kind of fun, right?

Problem is, none of this is leading anywhere. Season three is mercifully short at only four episodes. Half of the primary cast is dead or moved on by now, and those who remain are trapped in a bizzare exercise in removing any likeability from their personas and having everyone behave entirely out of character for no reason.

At least Richard Dormer looks to be enjoying himself, chewing scenery as he goes from grizzled sheriff to reindeer-juice tripping madman to utterly unhinged, monologuing murderous lunatic.

Shame it’s not nearly as much fun for the audience as it clearly was for him.

Check out the first season, skip the rest.

TED LASSO s02

It’s back!

We actually let the season mostly play out before binging it all in the week leading up to the finale — it’s the kind of show that brings such a good mood with it that you want to savour its short run but also hook as much into your veins as you can manage at once.

How to adequately describe Ted Lasso? From the outside it looks like a fairly boilerplate sports dramedy, but it very quickly reveals itself to be fundamentally about caring, support and growth. Season one was such an absolute burst of sunshine for 2020, and earned all the praise it received for its smart, brilliant character work while retaining a wonderfully high degree of emotional intelligence and a refreshingly blunt approach to conflict.

And this season doesn’t disappoint.

Interestingly, this actually marks something of a slightly darker tone than season one. Jason Sudeikis has described this as the Empire Strikes Back before we get to Return of the Tedi for the third and final season next year.

The infectious sincerity and kindness is still present, but it’s not trying to sell you something saccharine or hollow. There are plenty of big emotional moments and they always feel true and genuine, even to a bitter old cynic such as myself.

Honestly, if you haven’t gotten on board I can’t push it on you strongly enough. From someone who couldn’t give two shits about football, I am incredibly invested in this wholesome show.

Highly recommended!

MIDNIGHT MASS (2021)

Mike Flanagan has definitely picked up on Stephen King’s skill with small town communities and horror, giving this the feel of a King tale, though it’s not an adaptation.

The trick, of course, being to centre the emotional core each character around the theme of the series — in this case, faith and fanaticism versus morality; the absolute of God versus actual, practical right and wrong.

And, of course, guilt.

There’s a supernatural hook too, one that’s very easy to pick up on early and that thankfully reveals itself quickly enough to get on with the important business of the consequence of it’s premise, rather than any sort of cheap shock. It’s the type of creeping, human horror that Flanagan absolutely excels at, and even still the later episodes have some brilliantly executed terror.

On theme, it was refreshing to have a series centred around Catholicism take the time to sit with the atheist and Muslim characters too, and to show them as not being definitively in opposition to the church. The show, after all, isn’t about any religion specifically, but rather about faith, and allowing these outsider perspectives to be poetic and beautiful in their own right does a great service to the character drama at the heart of it.

There are some great extended dialogues, fantastically shot sequences, and yes, excellent horror. Better still, it took what could have very easily been a trite and worn concept, and wrung some genuinely compelling, tragic storytelling out of it.

If you enjoyed Hill House/Bly Manor you’re unlikely to be disappointed here. Mike Flanagan has fast gone up the list of people to watch whenever they drop something new, as he always has something distinct and thoughtful to show.

Highly recommended.

BRAND NEW CHERRY FLAVOR (2021)

Part Cronenberg body horror, part Lynchian psychological trip, part weirder-bits-of-TrueBlood.

Incredibly well shot and put together with a great specificity of vision that conjures a distinct and uniquely nightmarish take on 90s L.A. drenched in neon and black magic.

Some truly disgusting visuals anchored by a fantastic cast of strange, funny and rich characters.

Not for those with weak stomachs, but horror fans should definitely find a lot to love here.

Wonderfully weird, highly recommended.

NARCOS (s01-03)

A little late to the party on this one, sure, but better late than never.

The sort of prestige crime drama usually reserved for HBO, it marks a period of Netflix when they were trying especially hard to establish themselves as a viable rival. It really shows.

Usually I avoid discussing plot since I often prefer myself to be able to start watching something without knowing where it’s going, but that approach is kind if moot here since Narcos is explicitly about the burgeoning cocaine trade in Medellín, Colombia during the 1980s and 90s — most notably charting the rise and fall of legendary cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar.

Performances are fantastic. Story is tense, engaging and frequently horrifying as the drug war escalates and corruption seeps into everything. Interests become conflicted, power shifts, lots of innocent people get caught in the crossfire.

A dark and depressing tale, the effects of which are still being felt to this day.

Recommended.