The Sinner

The Sinner is rightly billed as a whydunnit rather than a whodunnit, a welcome twist on the usual crime mystery. But it’s more than just a novel shift in format: this is a comprehensive and painful exploration of trauma and how it perpetuates further destruction, delivered as a captivating detective show.

Jessica Biel returns to television as Cora Tanetti, a small-town mother who inexplicably stabs a man to death on a beach in full view of witnesses. She doesn’t know who he is or why she did it. Despite Cora being otherwise stable and lacking motive, most of the police chalk it up as a simple murder and move on. All except detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), who can’t dismiss it so easily.

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Star Trek: Discovery

SPOILERS for the first two episodes of Discovery.

Star Trek is back on television where it belongs, and it’s brought the movies with it.

Star Trek: Discovery is a different beast from its predecessors, with the production values of today’s most extravagant prestige TV and the grammar and aesthetic of cinema, all in service of a serialised story. After the relentlessly stand-alone Voyager and the sputtering Enterprise, Star Trek was crying out for a TV upgrade to take advantage of the innovations it failed to heed in the waning years of its last TV era. It now has, producing perhaps Trek’s most broadly appealing series to date, but this particular storyline still has to prove itself.

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Legion is the evolution of the superhero screen adaptation. It’s hard to overstate how intrinsically it differs from nearly every prior film or TV show about a Marvel or DC character. Confidently blazing a new trail with little need for the genre’s well-worn touchstones, the series is riveting. It’s as if a gonzo director bought the rights for peanuts when the genre was down on its luck, ignored most of the property, and used it as a playground for their crazy vision.

But this is no Jodorowsky Dune adaptation conjured up on the fringes of the mainstream. This is a co-production between erstwhile rivals Fox (owner of screen rights to the lucrative X-Men franchise) and Marvel TV (responsible for the Netflix Marvel shows set in the company’s cinematic universe, which notoriously does not include the X-Men). For both, this is a rare venture into avant-garde weirdness. Intertextually ambitious as the Marvel Studios films may be, Doctor Strange’s visual flourishes are the extent of their experimental storytelling. Legion, on the other hand, is experimental to its core, with an unreliable narrator for a protagonist who forces us to question the validity of everything we see.

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Episode 303

Episodes is mainly known as that show in which Matt LeBlanc plays himself. Beyond that it hasn’t received much attention, quietly chugging along for the last few years for a loyal audience. I expected that if I ever got around to watching it, I’d find something adequate but superfluous.

To my surprise, it’s a vigorous, acid-tongued delight and worth catching up with before the fifth and final season arrives later this year. The experience is a reminder that in the saturated age of Peak TV, minimal buzz isn’t the reliable filter that it used to be.

The premise, at least, always sounded irresistible. British comedy writers Sean and Beverly Lincoln (Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig) have an acclaimed TV show about the trials of an overweight British private school headmaster (Richard Griffiths). After they accept an offer to remake it for American television, their vision is torn apart by oblivious network executives who warp it into a show about a high school hockey coach played by Matt LeBlanc. Worse, LeBlanc turns out to be callous, amoral, and dysfunctional. Trapped in a creative nightmare, Sean and Beverly have to somehow churn out a show they now despise.

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SPOILERS below the cut

The catalyst for everything that happens in 11.22.63 should have tipped me off that this mini-series would have fundamental flaws. The main character travels back to 1960 to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. How? Through a time portal in the back room of a diner.

As a means of time travel it’s more suited to a fairy tale or a sketch comedy than a serious drama. The script doesn’t even bother to distract us from how arbitrary a plot device it is. But for the first few episodes, the contrivance is forgivable because it efficiently ushers us into the unabashed fun that the premise creates. In one of his periodic shifts sideways into unexpected jobs for a movie star, James Franco plays Jake Epping, a Maine schoolteacher recruited by his old friend Al (Chris Cooper), owner of the diner, to save JFK. He moves to Texas and spends three years preparing, including by spying on Lee Harvey Oswald. If he determines that Oswald acted alone, Jake will kill him to change the future.

The opening episodes have a Back to the Future appeal as we watch Franco adjust to life in the early 1960s, often failing to hide his 21st century perspectives and speech pattern. Watching him track down alleged key players in the assassination conspiracy has a meta thrill. This period of American political history has become so culturally iconic that it feels mythical and almost fictional in what a strange loose end it remains. 11.22.63 understands how exciting it would be to follow a contemporary of ours crossing that divide and watching it unfold around him.

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Riverdale: Pilot

riverdaleIs Riverdale an admirably bizarre experiment? Or a desperate reconfiguration of recognisable intellectual property that darkens a cheerful vintage text as a shortcut to sexy?

A live-action TV adaptation of the Archie comics that morphs a classically wholesome piece of Americana into a teen soap murder mystery in which Archie sleeps with his teacher is certainly one of the more provocative overhauls of recent years. But if you’re a network looking for yet another comic book property to adapt and Archie is one of the few icons left, how else do you make it viable?

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Sense8 to date: Season One and the Christmas Special

sense8-3Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are spending enormous amounts on original shows. In the frantic race to stay ahead, some of that money will inevitably be thrown at underdeveloped projects. Netflix’s Sense8 is Exhibit A. An enormous budget and vast resources have been lavished on a script with a fatal lack of believability and momentum.

If only these problems had been overcome, because Sense8’s philosophy is admirable and valuable in our divisive political climate. Creators the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski have built a show around the importance of empathy and love. Eight strangers from around the world become telepathically connected, able to share thoughts, skills, and experiences that give them new insights into humanity and themselves as they navigate their day-to-day lives.

To reinforce the scope of their connection, the series doesn’t simulate their home countries from a single production base as most shows are forced to. Sense8 actually filmed in the US, the UK, Mexico, Iceland, Kenya, Germany, South Korea, India, and more. Even the whole cast made the trip, flying around the world despite appearing only as visions in each other’s minds. The effort made behind the scenes intensifies their bond on a meta level.

Considered as a lushly filmed travelogue, Sense8 is a treat; rarely does scripted TV show us so much of the world. And Netflix, eager to make a mark, was willing to pay for it based on the first three scripts. But if they assumed the story would gather steam, they must be disappointed. The show’s lack of buzz – compare Sense8’s cultural footprint with that of SF stablemate Stranger Things – is likely a direct result. A show this expensive can’t afford such narrative inertia unless the character work is supremely confident and effective. Sadly, it’s not.

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Beyond the Walls

beyondthewallsA delightful effect of the increasing global distribution of non-English language dramas is how many surprises pop up. Even those of us glued to TV coverage can still be blindsided by a show that comes out of nowhere exhibiting stunning craft, poise, and ambition. The three-part French horror series Beyond the Walls is the latest show to sneak up on me like this. This remarkable supernatural fantasy deserves to be seen by a wide audience and leaves you hungry for more.

The Returned (Les Revenants) announced France’s capacity for terrific genre television, so Beyond the Walls’ technical accomplishments aren’t unexpected. But on hearing the premise and watching much of the first episode, you wouldn’t assume it was anything truly special. Reclusive speech therapist Lisa (Veerle Baetens) learns she has inherited an abandoned old house opposite her Paris apartment despite not knowing the former owner. After moving in, she hears noises in the walls, in which she finds a labyrinthine doppelganger of her house. Unable to escape, she is stalked by silent humanoid creatures called the Others.

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The Expanse

expansePeak TV has caused casualties. The recent explosion in scripted drama means that not only viewers are struggling to keep up with it all, but even the critics who tell us what’s worth watching. During Battlestar Galactica’s run only a decade ago when fewer mainstream dramas were vying for praise, even a space show could attract critical attention. Now with streaming services and yet more cable channels producing scripted TV, Syfy’s terrific return to space, The Expanse, has struggled to get much buzz. But it deserves to.

While some unwieldy subplots prevent it from operating at Battlestar’s level for now, The Expanse largely succeeds as a drama as well as a space opera adventure. Like its forerunner, it tackles contemporary themes through the prism of SF, including resource depletion, inequality, and geopolitical manipulation.

Based on the novel series by James S.A. Corey, the show is set in a future when the solar system has been colonised but interstellar travel is still unattainable. Tensions are brewing between a decadent but depleted Earth, a militaristic Mars, and the marginalised citizens of the asteroid belt. In the belt, washed-up detective Miller (Thomas Jane) is assigned to look for the missing daughter of an Earth tycoon. Near Saturn, a mining ship called the Canterbury answers a distress signal that leads to catastrophe, turning the survivors into fugitives. And on Earth, United Nations powerbroker Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) tackles the alleged threat of the Outer Planets Alliance, who want freedom for the belt.

Syfy has given the show a higher budget than any of its previous dramas, allowing for huge, detailed sets and bigger name actors like Jane and Aghdashloo.  The production values, dialogue, and acting are strong and the themes are timely. This is a step up from Syfy’s recent efforts, and their first genuinely competitive drama since Battlestar.

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The Secret History of Twin Peaks

secrethistoryFor those of us who love Twin Peaks down to our bones, the arrival of new material set in its singular realm is monumental. The forthcoming premiere of the first new episode of the show in 26 years is the main event, but co-creator Mark Frost’s new novel, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, has snuck in ahead to be the first to bring this world back to life.

New Twin Peaks material is significant compared to other cult properties because Frost and David Lynch have wisely restricted what has been produced. Apart from 30 episodes and feature film Fire Walk with Me, only three approved tie-in books and an audiobook exist to date. No new Twin Peaks material has emerged since 1992 except for Lynch-produced Log Lady episode introductions and the 2014 release of deleted scenes from Fire Walk with Me.

This is because, unusually, Lynch and Frost own the property themselves. Given the gradual rediscovery of the show over the last decade and Hollywood’s eagerness to strip-mine established properties, a studio that owned Twin Peaks would presumably have returned to the well already, with or without its creators.

But the resulting drought in new material and Lynch and Frost’s apparent lack of interest in returning to Twin Peaks left us convinced that what we had was all there would ever be. Twin Peaks was a finite creative work, its afterlife offering only ongoing analysis and rediscovery through the eyes of family and friends. We would while away the years interpreting this elliptical and confounding text, certain its creators would never fill in the gaps or provide a resolution to one of the cruelest unresolved cliffhangers in all of television.
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southcliffeSouthcliffe opens with an elderly woman tending her front garden in a British village. The sky is grey and the street is silent. Suddenly two bangs register that might be gunshots. She looks down and sees a bloodstain on the lower half of her jumper. More bewildered than hurt, she notices a man marching up the street towards her, possibly carrying a gun. We don’t see his face.

The scene ends abruptly, but no sense of suspense or menace lingers. Only a horrified awe that something awful has happened, and with so few of the usual cinematic signals to clarify it for us.

This scene prepares us for how to watch Southcliffe, a series that rejects television’s typical narrative urgency and dramatic crescendos in favour of raw and painful silence. These four episodes recall British television’s social realism of the 1970s and 1980s, when programmes like Boys from the Blackstuff and The Firm were demonstrating that television didn’t take until the 21st century to reach artistic maturity. This is not fun or addictive viewing, but it is immersive, vital, and desperately moving.

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The Boy and the Beast

boyandthebeastWith The Boy and the Beast, Mamoru Hosoda has fused the pathos of Wolf Children with the vibrant chaos of Summer Wars. Hosoda has been anointed Miyazaki’s heir by all and sundry, but his comfort and skill both with endearing comedy and deep emotion truly justify the comparison. The Boy and the Beast may be the most Ghibli-esque yet of his films, but it retains his distinctive stamp of contemplative melancholy.

For the first time Hosoda presents us with a fantasy world, although one that exists alongside modern Japan. Young Ren has run away from his guardians after the death of his mother, and while wandering the streets of Tokyo he meets Kumatetsu, a humanoid beast from the neighbouring bakemono realm. The irascible and lonesome Kumatetsu is competing to take over as the new lord of his realm, and needs a pupil to help him. Seeking escape, Ren follows and starts a new life learning kendo with Kumatetstu, even though his new master has no idea how to teach his skills or raise a child.

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Unreal is vital, progressive, and riveting

unrealThis century’s high-quality American drama has been marked by the rise of not just the anti-hero, but more broadly of the morally compromised, psychologically complex lead character. The era when torment was the biggest blemish you could hope for in a series lead is over. But most of these newly multi-faceted characters have been male, as TV drama leads largely always have been. Complexity and moral ambiguity did extend to female characters but in a supporting capacity: Calamity Jane, Carmela Soprano, Peggy Olson. But we’re finally starting to see shows that put these women in the lead, and Unreal is superbly blazing the trail.

Unreal is like a dramatic version of The Larry Sanders Show, set behind the scenes of a Bachelor-style reality TV series called Everlasting. The two principal characters are women: Rachel (the excellent Shiri Appleby), one of the producers responsible for bonding with and manipulating the female contestants, and Quinn (Constance Zimmer), the executive producer and showrunner who will happily do anything to her cast and crew to generate good TV.

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