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Saturday, 24 May 2014

Agents of SHIELD, OUaT, Supernatural, The Blacklist, Arrow, Star-Crossed, The Tomorrow People, Hannibal

Right. Yes.


A lot of US TV series have been ending in the past few weeks - 'tis the season for it, it seems. I could give them all separate reviews, which seems ... daunting and liable to take so long that they may have actually started airing again by the time I'm done. 

Instead, let's round them all up into one single super post: Eight reviews of eight series in no particular order. Some are good, some are bad, some are merely okay.

Without further ado, let us get on with the megapost.

Agents of SHIELD.

I'm told that Agents of SHIELD actually wasn't very commercially popular, although fandom still seems to adore it. To be honest, I'm not entirely surprised, but I do think it's a mistake on the part of the unwashed masses to not have thrown themselves heart and soul into loving this show.

It's very much a show of two halves, and the first half is, while not genre re-defining or striking, certainly a very competent demonstration of episodic storytelling, with strong characters, plots that hold together well under scrutiny, and a larger plot brewing in the background.

The second half is a lot stronger than the first, a lot more serialised, and contains some genuinely surprising plot twists. The last five or six episodes, particularly, can easily contend with The Blacklist, Arrow and Hannibal for quality, although it's a markedly different style to any of those. Agents of SHIELD may not have been all that people dreamed it could be, but I'm more inclined to place the blame for that at its detractors' feet rather than on the show itself – it was all it realistically could have been, I think.

It's been renewed for a second series, which for a long time it seemed like it wouldn't be, but is a good decision on the part of the network. Four stars.

Once Upon A Time Series 3.

For my sins, I do like Once Upon A Time. It's not good, anyone who says it is might well be a Once Upon A Time producer trying to cunningly trick you, but god help me if it's not entertaining. This series is no different, as much as I take umbrage to Disney and ABC milking the Peter Pan IP, a property historically used to fund a children's hospital, for every drop they can get out of it.

It feels like there's been more than three series, though – in fact, as I write this, it feels like we're limping past the fifth series, and I attribute that mostly to how long this series has felt, and how plot threads are already starting to curl in on themselves and wind themselves into tangled snarls that make very little sense, which is generally a sign that something has gone on too long and it's time to end it for good of one and all.

This hasn't been a bad series, not at all, but increasingly I feel like Once Upon A Time's spark is starting to die, and that it may be time to lead it towards a graceful ending, so that it can be remembered fondly in years to come. Three stars, but I considered giving it three and a half.

Supernatural Series 9.

Speaking of things that have gone on too long and who feel like they're dying, dear god does that statement apply more to Supernatural than it does to Once Upon A Time. For me, Supernatural hit its peak during Series 4 and Series 5, and should have ended somewhere around Series 7. But here we are, two years on, with what I can only describe as a very blah series, that has felt directionless from start to finish, with very little sense of an actual threat and very little sense of an actual goal.

Even now, looking back at the series, I have trouble reconciling each individual plot point in my head, as if they don't quite fit onto the same timeline.

But it has the strengths that any Supernatural series has – a strong if rather markedly sausage-ous cast, a good sense of humour, a fairly developed understanding of spectacle and form. Those are all things that go a long way, and it'd be remiss of me to overlook them. It also had a very strong series finale, which sets up the events of the next series in such a way that, in spite of what I said above still holding true, I'm actually really looking forward to seeing it.

Three and a half stars.

The Blacklist.

The Blacklist is one of those series I was really looking forward to, and it more or less lived up to expectations. It had interesting and often quite stunning episodic plots and a series-long plot that maintained my interest well, because I'm a sucker for espionage plotlines, criminals being criminal-ish, and ongoing mysteries. Megan Boone and James Spader are superb as the series' leads, and Harry Lennox, Parminder Nagra, Ryan Eggold and Diego Klattenhoff also put in excellent performances.

It's a very well made series that I would recommend to any fans of either police procedurals or spy fiction, although it's not really either – it shares elements with each, but it's difficult to sum up exactly what The Blacklist is, in terms of genre, so I'm not going to try too hard.

If I had one problem with it – apart from the fact that it very occasionally dips in repetitiveness – it's that I found the ending of this series deeply unsatisfying as far as the answer to the mystery of Berlin's identity. It's difficult to describe how truly unsatisfying that answer was, but perhaps I'll change my mind a little way into series 2.

Four and a half stars. I wavered between that and four and a quarter, but at that point I think I'm just splitting hairs (or stars, as the case may be).

Arrow Series 2.

Arrow has surpassed all of my expectations in its two series so far. Granted, my expectations were fairly low, somewhere between Smallville at its worst and The Dark Knight Rises, but it surpassed them fairly stunningly to become one of my favourite television shows. It's a very well-made show, to be honest: It has an excellent and well-acted cast of characters, it excels at both episodic and serialised storytelling, it has strong emotional conflicts at its core balanced with strong external conflict.

The first series was a flawed but highly enjoyable beast, and the second series builds on that foundation and delivers a much improved story. Manu Bennett's Slade Wilson can easily match John Barrowman's Malcolm Merlyn for villainy chops; Several of the best characters, such as Felicity Smoak and Moira Queen, are given more time to shine; The pacing is much more even than that of the first series, with a steadier build towards what was a fairly flawless climax. Even the backdoor pilot for the Flash spin-off, something I was a little concerned about given that Barry Allen in the comics is about as interesting as cardboard, was a very well-made piece of television.

I am struggling to name many flaws with Arrow, except maybe that it wants to be Batman a little too much. I'm only going to give it four stars, though. It loses an entire star for making Amanda Waller, (one of the few older, overweight women in fiction) a conventionally attractive and slender woman in her twenties. It was annoying when the New 52 did it, it's annoying here, and I choose to demonstrate my distaste via withholding symbolic stars.

It demonstrates remarkable self-restraint that I didn't cut it down to three and a half stars for that blunder, actually. So close to a perfect set of stars, Arrow. So far.



I didn't hate this? I actually quite happily watched all of it and wouldn't have minded a second series, so it can't have been all that bad. I suppose. Grudgingly.

Thing is, if you want to have a metaphor for racism and segregation – and that's what the Atrians are – then why on earth would you have your oppressed group composed almost entirely of trendy white Americans trendily whiting about, except one of the villains and one antihero? Not to mention led by Matt Lanter, no less, a man grown in a lab to be the trendiest white American dude to ever step foot upon the earth.

There are other problems too. For instance, if you're going to risk being accused of shallow pretentiousness by using Romeo and Juliet quotes as episode titles, at least make a token attempt at capturing the spirit of Shakespeare's work. Maybe reference it in show once. Something. Anything that'll convince me you didn't just do it to annoy me personally.

Alternately, if your premise involves 'seven Atrian students', let us get to know all seven, not four of them. Maybe give your leads more personality than bricks – you can clearly do it, your supporting characters are fine, and I actually really liked some of them.

Just. Three stars. Three stars. Watchable, very much so, but filled with strange choices and wasted potential.

The Tomorrow People.

Le sigh. Le mew.

I actually watched the original The Tomorrow People - not when it aired, obviously, I hadn't been born, but later. Yes, indeed, this is not an American program, this is that thing we all hate: A British program transplanted clumsily into the US because apparently Americans explode if they encounter people from other countries on their televisions.

You know what the original was about? Mutants fighting shapeshifting alien robot Jedikiah, and evil alien plant Spidron, with the help of a Galactic Federation. You know what this remake was about? Well, me neither. Mutants. An evil government agency, with Jedikiah now as apparently the most unfortunately named regular human dude. That guy from Spartacus, who's moved on from crushing slave rebellions and now wants to stop time and murder all humans. Lots and lots of sex and love triangles. Incoherent plotting propped up by bland characters.

Maybe I'm biased, but my main thought while watching it was 'couldn't you have just slapped a different name on this? Like The X-Men, since that seems to be what you're desperately emulating more than the beloved British children's TV series you've actually chosen to remake? Couldn't you have just not made this at all?'

If there had been a single spark of anything remotely interesting in this show, I would maybe be a little more kind to it – but there wasn't, it was like a group of fifty year old men had been asked 'what appeals to young adults these days?' and then thrown everything from their terrible, terrible brain-storming session at a single television program.

It's not been renewed. It should never have been made in the first place. Half a star. That's me being generous.

Hannibal Series 2.

Hannibal is a bit of an odd beast to review, and I mean that in the best way possible. It has always reminded me more of a stage play than a television series, akin to Woman in Black, Attempts on Her Life or Heart Play – with that sometimes nuanced, sometimes crude use of symbolism, lighting, noise and silence, analogy and misdirection that is the natural by-product of a medium where the acute physical presence of your performance limits the reach of your artifice.

It's a bit like a Frank Miller play filtered through Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty - Almost painful realism passed through a violent shattering of reality, leaving you with something very surreal and dreamlike, this passionate and convulsive conception of a story. It's inspired, though: The language is measured, precise and poetic, the cinematography the kind of stunning that will be studied by students of film for decades, the storytelling excelling in both episodic and serialised forms in a way that is only matched on this list by Arrow, the costuming and set design muted but gorgeous.

There were some questionable choices this series, that much is certain: The fate of Beverly Katz chief among them (I'm still vexed by that), along with the application of plot elements reserved in the books for Clarice Starling to Will Graham (which also vexes). I can't in good faith give the series five stars knowing that those choices were made, so instead I'll give it four and a half, which I think is still the best score on this list.

It's higher than The Tomorrow People at least, har har de har. 

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