Public Announcement 35 of 2016: This Is Us

imageUnpopcult loves both a good cry and a heartwarming American ensemble drama. Combine the two and do it well, and you have a show that’s not only right up our street, but smack bang in our front yard, waving and smiling right into our living room windows.

It’s no surprise then, that we’re IMMENSELY excited about NBC’s smash hit new drama/ teardropallooza This Is Us hitting UK screens tomorrow (Tuesday, Channel 4, 9pm). Starring Milo “Peter Petrelli” Ventimiglia, Sterling “Chris Darden” K. Brown, and Mandy “the girl from A Walk to Remember” Moore, it follows a group of people who happen to share a birthday and… I don’t actually know all that much more than that, but I can tell you that Mandy is married to Milo and about to give birth, Sterling has Daddy Issues, and there’s some kind of big twist that I’ve been trying desperately not to stumble on to before it airs over here.

Anyway, with Friday Night Lights long done, Parenthood’s last few seasons M.I.A in the UK, and Nashville being bonkers, we’re long overdue something we can either dab our eyes discreetly at (like Jed) or sob till we’re so dehydrated we need an IV (that would be me), so we’ve stocked up on tissues and we’re READY. Bring on the blubbing; we’ll review as soon as we can.

Designated Survivor s1 ep 8

President Kirkman wants to hold Congressional elections, but things keep getting in the way, dammit. He’d prefer the death of Majid Nassar not to be a distraction, so is still trying to keep it secret, but Seth is asked about it at a news conference. Polling machines in Kansas City have been covered in ricin. And – worst of all – Leo is confronted at school by a reporter, who asks him whether his real father is, in fact, in a federal prison. Fortunately, though, this storyline might be finished: Tom gets a DNA test done; after the usual business about not having to look at the test results to know who Leo’s father is, he opens them anyway; they proves he’s Leo’s biological father. If anyone suffers as a result it’s Seth, who is betrayed by Lisa, and loses out on what was looking like a decent chance to get laid.

To the rest of America the ricin is more of a problem, and in fairness you can see that risking respiratory failure and death in order to vote might be a deterrent. Tom toys with cancelling the elections, but decides to go ahead anyway, and in order to set an example he visits a more or less empty polling station in order to vote. Back at the White House he’s beating himself up for going ahead with an election that everyone is too scared to vote in, but what do you know? The people, inspired by their President, have turned out in their millions. Democracy is saved.

But not for long. The mysterious woman acting as liaison between the Big Bad(s) and Deputy Director Atwood – and if we’ve had her name I missed it, so she’s getting called Janice for now – gives Atwood written (?) instructions about what to do if he wants his son to live, which he does. So Atwood hits up POTUS, tells him that he, Atwood, poisoned Nassar, and gets arrested. The thing is, though, that it doesn’t make sense. “It doesn’t make sense”, observes Kirkman, who orders Aaron to get hold of Atwood’s closest colleague in the FBI and ask her – for it is, of course, Agent Q – what the hell’s going on.

And this is a question that Q has already been asking herself, having had to endure an incredibly unconvincing Atwood assuring her, “Yeah, everything’s all right, my son had just, uh, wandered off or something. He definitely hasn’t been kidnapped. No, you said kidnapped, not me”. So she tails him and sees him deep in convo with Janice. When she finds out, therefore, that he’s suddenly admitted to murdering the most important criminal suspect in the history of the US, she’s able to work out that he’s being leveraged, because she isn’t completely effing stupid. Then she gets another of those annoying cryptic clues: 11.14pm, whatever that means. In the meantime, though, with Hookstraten threatening to open a Congressional investigation into the death of Nassar,  a worried MacLeish has to be debriefed by Janice, and drops the first hint that he might also be caught up in something beyond his control. A good episode, although I kept waiting for an OMG moment which never quite arrived.

The Blacklist s4 ep 4

From The Blacklist this week we get “stealth eco-terrorist” Gaia, who when we first see him is… no. I’m trying to think about something else. Anyway, Gaia is a proper Blacklister, rather than a minor criminal: his MO is to disguise his attacks as environmentally disastrous accidents, and his next target is a gas pipeline which, if he blows it up, will turn a nearby nuclear power station into an American Fukushima. Also, he has some sort of connection to Alexander Kirk, the nature of which Red doesn’t feel inclined to divulge.

So the task force sets to work trying to find Gaia, but it isn’t a happy working environment. Liz seems to be back as a full-time member: look, I don’t really care, and as far as I’m concerned this show was at its best when the Red Squad was knocking off a Blacklister every week, so I’m fine with her wandering around the FBI as if she’s never left, or never been convicted of treason, or whatever. But I think we need some sort of justification for her return, even a spurious and unconvincing one.

The real problem this week, though, is Samar, who is nothing short of insufferable throughout; particularly to Aram, who presumably got fed up waiting for her, and has had the temerity to land himself a hot girlfriend (adjective confirmed by Ressler). Samar: you could have been hitting that from every angle for the last couple of seasons at least, and you didn’t want to, so how about putting in your transfer request, leaving the Task Force, and SHUTTING THE EFF UP? I don’t think I’m being unreasonable.

Meantime Kirk has set up a live TV feed so that Liz can check in on Agnes whenever she wants. “I never wanted you to be apart from her”, he purrs, despite the fact that he’s, well, keeping them apart. But wait, says Tom – a live link? Couldn’t we use that to trace Kirk? No, says Liz: he’ll have thought of that, and if you try to do it he’ll shut the link down. Undaunted, Tom goes ahead anyway without telling Liz, at which point we kind of know that it’s going to go wrong in exactly the way she predicted.

And Mr. Kaplan, who survived one attempt on her life – or was it? – has been taken in by a mysterious wood-dweller. Admittedly, the faintest of alarm bells should be ringing because on seeing a woman of a certain age with a bullet wound he’s not, all, OMG! You’ve been shot! Let’s get you to a hospital! Instead she ends up chained to a bed. And yet… I can’t help but wonder whether there’s an outside chance Red is using her as bait, and the wood-dweller is, perhaps, a high-value Blacklister?

Anyway. Gaia is identified, nuclear meltdown is averted, Aram finally loses his temper with Samar, and Red edges closer to finding Kirk and Agnes, in the best episode of the season so far.

Nashville s4 ep 14

She’s back, thank the Lord. Juliette (Hayden Panettiere) makes a welcome return to Nashville this week: out of treatment, and notably more wistful and less volatile than before. Almost immediately, on the back of her triumphant performance in ‘Cline!’, she’s offered a part in a Steven Spielberg film shooting in Prague. Good news…? Yes and no: her acting career is taking off, but she wants to spend more time with Cadence, and under the terms of her agreement with Avery she’s only allowed two hours of contact per week.

Avery, quite understandably, is reluctant to increase this: he makes the pertinent point that she’s been getting better in a treatment facility, but that doesn’t necessarily prove that she’ll be able to replicate that in the outside world. It’s worth saying that – although the show’s hand was perhaps forced by Panettiere’s understandable absence – Nashville has been commendably reluctant to give Juliette an entirely free pass for her behaviour; yes, she might have been ill, but we aren’t allowed to forget just how much it would have wounded Avery.

She decides, nonetheless, to go to Prague, but then in the middle of a press conference for the new film changes her mind, publicly admits to having had treatment for postpartum depression, and decides to stay at home to spend more time with Cadence. Although it’s generally a mistake to confuse an actor with their role, I don’t think it’s stretching a point to suggest that this scene must have been informed, at least in part, by Panettiere’s real-life circumstances. And by the end of the episode – what do you know? – Avery has conceded ground on contact time, and there’s the hint of a thawing of relations. Do they still love each other? Oh, I think they do.

Juliette’s return offers the writers a chance to get rid of one or two storylines which have, perhaps, delighted us for long enough. Vita’s still missing – see ya, Vita. (Although the writers seem particularly keen to make the point that everyone on the show, particularly Rayna, is bafflingly but remarkably invested in the whereabouts of the cheeky little till-dipping felon they’ve met for like five minutes, so I think we have to assume that Vita’s coming back.) Frankie gets loaded, has a confrontation with Deacon, then starts again at AA – see ya, Drunk Frankie. (Although I have to assume that there was intentional irony in Deacon – Deacon – calling someone else a “mean SOB when you get liquored up”). And Colt wants to join the army – see ya, Colt. (Although the father/son hug was moderately touching, and Colt’s grandfather’s point about Luke’s willingness to support the troops by playing the odd gig but not much more was, on one view, well-made.)

Meantime, while persistently annoying the cops about their inability to find Vita, Rayna also finds the time to set up a showcase for Layla to play a few songs to some country radio guys in the hope of getting some airplay. It has to be said that I found myself really rooting for Layla at this point; I kind of feel that she’s been through enough grief. Fortunately it goes well, and among those impressed is the latest country music superstar to hit the show, one Autumn Chase (played by Alicia Witt, and sharing a surname with Will Chase, who plays Luke. Odd.), who is looking for a support act for her forthcoming tour. Well, Autumn just loves Layla, so they agree to hang out that very night at The Bluebird, where The Exes are playing. The rest, of course, writes itself: The Exes are great, as they always are, and Autumn inevitably decides that they would be a better bet as a support act. And Layla goes home to phone Avery, who had promised he’d always be there for her, but gets no reply – because Avery’s with his ex-wife and their daughter, Layla, better get used to it – and starts sobbing hysterically.

Finally, some good news at last for Will, who first has to endure an almost comical sequence of events in which people are really keen to talk to/write with him, but need to keep breaking off because they get urgent phone calls. He’s finally had enough, so goes storming into Luke’s office to demand that W******’ D*****’ Records allow him to record the songs he wrote with Kevin. Sure thing, says Luke; and while you’re at it, I was wrong when I dropped you, so why don’t you come back and put your music out on my label? I’m pleased that Luke is indeed a decent guy; I’m pleased that Will has had a break; most of all, though, I’m pleased that Hayden Panettiere was well enough at the time of filming to come back to the show. An excellent episode.

Blindspot s2 ep 2

*SPOILERS*

Week 2 of the new season and, now they’re not allowed to fight it out in motel corridors any more, everyone’s in a MOOD.

The increasingly irritating Zapata sulks and stamps her feet for most of the ep, with just about everything she says being a variation on the general “Jane sucks! I don’t like Jane! Go away Jane!” theme. Reade, with the child abuse arc from last season preying on his mind, is a little more professional about it but, despite Ms Doe saving his life, isn’t exactly taking his seat on the Team Jane minibus either; “It was one thing when we thought she was a pawn,” he pouts, “but her mother’s the leader and her brother’s a homicidal maniac. Sandstorm’s in her blood.” Which might seem logical at first blush, but Reade, dude, if you open a history book, “(BLANK)’s in (their) blood” has been used as an excuse for a lot of inexcusable things over the years, so maybe just check yourself before you wreck everyone else, ok?

Jane herself, meanwhile, is justifiably miffed about the whole “three months spent in a black site hanging from her ankles” thing, and even the normally even-tempered Patterson is a bit snippy, although not so much with Jane as with Kalinda and her super-NSA cellphone filled with secrety secrets. “Why don’t I have access to that?” the disgruntled computer whiz keeps asking, before getting her own back when even Kalinda’s stumped as to where a suspect might be: “Can’t you just use your magic phone?” Heh.

Since their boss Kurt is hardly Mr Happy as a general rule, now he’s got a broken heart and a heightened case of Daddy Issues, he’s not exactly setting a great example when it comes to hostile workplaces, either. “I don’t like working with (Jane) any more than you do,” he tells Zapata. “I don’t like being in the same room as her. But it’s the only way to end this.” As Jane walks right up behind him. Duh.

Of course, when it comes to Jane, Kurt’s words tend to belie his actions, though. There’s a new Tattoo case – yay! – featuring the DEA gun-waltzing programme, missiles being sold to a drug cartel so they can destroy half of Manhattan, and some randomly hilarious dialogue about evacuation – Patterson: “Evacuating what? The entire East Side of Manhattan?” Reade: “Yeah, what’re we supposed to tell them, go to the West Side?” – but the possibility of metropolitan annihilation matters even less than usual since the case is only there to give everyone a chance to bicker between bullets while Kurt declares “Jane, with ME!” and “Good work (stopping the destruction of Manhattan with what looks like a mid-priced games console)!” to a confused but secretly pleased Jane, just like old times.

Well, not quite like old times. “Until you can confront your feelings about (your father),” says Obi Wan Borden, “his shadow will follow you wherever you go.” At which point, Weller, saved by the bell (of his cellphone), packs up his father’s shadow and heads off to do something less emotional instead. Since Jane’s equally agitated, however, Obi Wan’s not giving up there: “You and Kurt could help each other…..” he says, hopefully. “After all, Jane, this team’s the closest thing to family you’ve got,” which is true but so pointed, so cruel and so wilfully oblivious to all the ill feeling in Team Tattoo at the moment that it makes me wonder. Could the sensitive psychologist be – deep breath – the Sandstorm mole? He’s the only one not remotely fussed by Jane’s deception and he’s bizarrely cheerful this week, when everyone else is bloody miserable. Could he – please NO – be evil? Oh, God. Let’s not even think about it. Especially since his happiness could and obviously should be explained by him ASKING PATTERSON OUT AT LAST. (We’ve only been waiting a year.) And PATTERSON SAYING YES. If he turns out to be a traitor playing them all, that will seriously squash my squee.

Mole or not, though, Jane at least takes his advice, and the first steps towards reconciliation with Kurt, who is also keen to throw the shippers another bone or two. Having already told everyone (that means YOU, Zapata) to get a grip and start working together instead of against each other, he admits”I don’t hate you, Jane. I just don’t know who you are any more.” “Well, that makes two of us,” says poor Jane, and what with their latest successful prevention of Armageddon, it looks like the beginnings of a thaw in relations between Team Tat’s top twosome. Which, of course, means it’s time for the Marshal and the homicidal maniac to jump in and try to freeze them back up again. Sigh. I enjoyed this, but I watch Blindspot for fun, you guys, not misery. I’m going to need things to get a bit more shippy and a bit less morose very, very soon.

Good Witch (s1 and s2)

imageLook, I know.

Every part of my brain (and Jed’s) is shouting at me. It’s calling Good Witch cheesy, treacly, corny, sugary and all the other food-related words people use to say something is too hackneyed and sentimental for its own good and everyone else’s. But for some reason, I, an avowed anti-binge-watcher, have managed to watch 13 episodes of this Hallmark concoction (both seasons including the 2-part Halloween special – oooooh – are on Netflix UK at the moment) over the past 3 days and although I can see every single thing wrong with it, I really don’t want to stop.

A spin-off from the popular TV movies (my next step is obviously to track them down and watch the hell out of them too), the show centres on the apparently omniscient Cassie Nightingale (Catherine Bell) whose supernatural skills are more sixth sense than spell-related; Cassie has a “feeling” about everything and everyone, and dispenses advice, tea and herb-based remedies (many of which seem to involve beets) accordingly, thereby curing all sorts of emotional, physical and social ailments for all comers to her shop, her home / B&B (which is both gorgeous and HUGE) and Middleton, the idyllic Canadian-masquerading-but-not-remotely-convincingly-as-American small town in which she and her family live.

Unfortunately, Cassie’s advice, while always right, tends to be of the fortune cookie variety and, since it’s always accompanied by her beatific, enigmatic smile and a tilt of the head, gets a bit repetitive. So Cassie sometimes mixes things up by sending people to deliver a pie/ cocoa/ something similarly heartwarming to somewhere else in town where they can then stumble upon the solution to their problem themselves – hurrah!

I told you it was cheesy.

Because her husband from the TV movies wasn’t available for the show, Cassie is recently-widowed, and a little bit sad in a stoic, heroic kind of way, so flashy divorced New York doctor Sam/ Mike-from-Desperate-Housewives moving in next door with his sulky teenage son obviously ups the fromage factor – at first, he mistrusts Cassie and her “feelings”, but it only takes about an ep and a half for him to adore her as much as the entire rest of the town does – by providing the oldest ship in the book for me to happily squee over. The pair of them bond both quickly and adorably, despite not very many obstacles at all, because this is Hallmark not Homeland, and no matter how long it might take, we know they’re going to be together, the only question being when it’ll happen.

In fairness, the show does try to engineer a bit of family-friendly conflict to delay the inevitable. In season 1, both Sam and Cassie are romanced by very pleasant people they’re very clearly not into, and now (I’m a few eps into season 2), Sam’s appalling ex-wife and Cassie’s as-yet-underwhelming ex-boyfriend have turned up to try and get in the way as well. Might as well save yourselves the effort, guys! Meantime, however, the writers have decided things could stand to be a bit less cosy so Cassie’s more tricksy-than-evil (but still annoying) cousin Abigail uses discord and manipulation to get the same good results Cassie gets through sweetness and light, Cassie’s exceptionally pleasant teenage daughter has some growing pains, and her perfectly nice stepson and his perfectly nice wife have perfectly normal but not remotely interesting marital issues. Everything’s going to be just fine, though, worry not.

So mild and gentle that it makes the delightful Private Eyes look like Game of Thrones, Good Witch is the kind of tv your elderly aunt (and me, God help me) will like, although there are a couple of notes that did strike me as a little off. Firstly, the incessant banging of the “small town is way better than big city!” drum gets a little wearing. I’m sure small town living suits plenty of folk, but I doubt there’s a small town anything like Fantasy Middleton anywhere on the planet, and anyway, I live in a biggish city and I like it. So there. And secondly, this small town isn’t exactly diverse – I could count the number of non-Caucasian people who’ve shown up so far on the fingers of one hand, and none of them had speaking parts or more than five seconds on screen. Is it stretching things to worry that idealisation of this type of racially homogenised, determinedly insular setting might – absolutely unintentionally, because Good Witch is nothing but good-hearted – be a dangerous thing given the type of twisted, angry racial politics that have given us 2016: The Year Fascism Came Back Into Fashion?

Now, of course, I feel horribly guilty for even suggesting that something as determinedly innocuous and sweet as Good Witch could conceivably contribute to something so appalling, but it’s been a strange year and a terrible one. Which, conversely, might be why I’m currently wallowing in this show at all; it’s pure escapism, easy on both the eye and the mind, even if mine keeps trying to rebel against it. So I’m off to fire up the Netflix and dive back into season 2 – a few more hours away from the world sounds good to me.

Designated Survivor s1 ep 7

A good news story to start President Tom Kirkman’s week: an American track-and-field team, led by national hero Coach Brad Weston, is heading to Russia. But nothing goes according to plan for POTUS: on landing in Moscow Weston is arrested, ostensibly for possession of performance-enhancing drugs. But then the CIA admits to the President that Weston is one of their assets, and Moscow demands the withdrawal of nuclear missiles from Turkey in return for Weston. Well, Tom isn’t going to stand for that, so instead he tries to pull off a three-way spy exchange to get Weston home, using a Russian operative being held in Saudi Arabia as tasty bait for Mother Russia. The fact that the swap is taking place around ten minutes from the end of the episode is enough of a clue that it isn’t going to work out as planned.

And, while we’re on the subject of three-ways (not that there’s any evidence, etc. etc.), the question of Leo’s paternity won’t go away: FLOTUS goes to prison to visit Jeffrey Myers (played by Erik Palladino, Dr Malucci in ER), still in the frame as a possible baby daddy, who wants to be released in return for his silence. Unfortunately, this means that Leo’s in the show this week.

Meantime, with Nassar lying dead on the floor of his cell, the President wants some answers, and the man who can provide them is Deputy Director Atwood, who has now been convinced by Agent Maggie Q that Congressman MacLeish is behind everything. So Atwood heads to the Oval to brief the President, but just as he’s about to begin… who should hove into view but MacLeish himself, on the back of a cosy dinner with Mr and Mrs POTUS. Without actually saying anything Atwood really couldn’t make his suspicion any plainer, and he doubles down on the side-eye when MacLeish drops into his office to hand over some personal documents relating to his vetting as a possible VPOTUS. So it’s no surprise when Atwood’s son goes missing on his way home from school; not to the audience at least, although Atwood is a little slower on the uptake than you’d want the Deputy Director of the FBI to be in an ideal world. “What”, he wonders aloud to Agent Q, several years behind the rest of us, “if this isn’t a coincidence?”

Agent Q, as it happens, is chasing Catalan, revealed by her CIA source not to be a Catalan, but an American mercenary. Mr CIA Source, whose name I didn’t catch and can’t be bothered to find out, has plenty of dire warnings for Q – he doesn’t want to see her get hurt, back away, and so on – but of course she doesn’t pay any attention, and her reward is that someone leaves an envelope full of Catalaniana in her car. But she can’t get hold of Atwood on the phone to tell him this, because he’s been approached by the Big Bad’s representative, Janice out of Stalker, who confirms that she and the people she’s working with have his son. I really hope that Mariana Klaveno and Maggie Q have, for loyal fans, insisted on at least one Stalker meta-joke in a future episode. (It struck me this week that the White House phones sound like the CTU ones in earlier seasons of 24, or maybe I’m imagining it.)

My problem with Designated Survivor is that I don’t really have a problem with it. I like it. It’s Madam Secretary with more action; it’s Scandal with more gravitas; it’s The West Wing with less of everything that made it The West Wing, but I can live with that. It’s not quite tailor-made for me, but off-the-peg it fits well enough. I wonder, though, whether there are sufficient viewers like me to make Designated Survivor into a viable long-term proposition.