The Blacklist s4 ep 11

The Blacklist tried its audience’s patience a little with the less-than-successful Who’s Your Daddy? story, so it’s more than time for a decent back-to-basics episode. This one hit the spot. Our Blacklisters are The Harem, an elite all-female gang of thieves who only steal from other criminals. They’re after a missing list of people in witness protection, and the only way they can be stopped – apart from someone actually stopping them, and they’re waaaay too good for that – is for Liz to infiltrate them. Perhaps Samar might have been better placed, or maybe there’s a bit of belated agonising about where her loyalties lie. (And, sidebar – perhaps the best way of ensuring that everyone in Witsec isn’t simultaneously put in danger is to not compile their details into a list? Anyway.)

So Liz successfully blags her way onto The Harem, with a little collateral damage along the way, downs some shots with the gals, and gets to work on planning the theft of the Witsec list. There’s a nice twist halfway through, when she discovers that another member of Fox Force Five is already in Red’s pocket; and there’s a not-so-nice one, when it looks as if she might need to submit to sexual assault to remain a member of The Harem. Because, y’know, female criminal therefore gay. Nope, Blacklist.

But that doesn’t bring the episode down. I like a good heist – see reviews passim – and this has a couple, starting with the cold open which combines fake Braxton Hicks contractions and a real sniper rifle to excellent effect. There’s a hint of emotion towards the end, a reminder that the Kaplan business isn’t going away, and an elusive subplot in which Red tries to buy a shipping line but discovers that one of his dodgy accountants has disappeared, leaving his money in electronic limbo somewhere. I liked this a lot.

24: Legacy s1 ep 2

Let’s start with the better storylines. Grimes confirms that he wants two mill for the McGuffin, in 45 minutes, or he’ll be selling it to the terrorists. Cash, mind you; none of the fancy-schmancy electronic transfers which have become de rigueur in procedurals these days. Problem: Carter doesn’t have access to that sort of money, and nor does Rebecca, who in any event has a more immediate problem: using her authority as the former director of CTU (?) she’s detained Keith, and wants him to provide his login details so that she and Andy can establish whether he’s the mole. Once again I’m driven to observe that a counter-terrorist organisation’s screening and recruitment policy should be much better than it is.

Carter asks his drug-dealer brother for the money – way to stereotype there, dude – who doesn’t quite have it lying around either, but is able to tell Carter about a recent drug bust which led to $4 million being seized by the police. So all Carter needs to do is singlehandedly get into evidence lockup, walk out with $4 million – maybe even $2 million would do – pay Grimes off, and save America. Now we’re talking. That’s the sort of thing 24 is here for.

Getting into the police building is easy enough – as Carter mordantly observes, getting arrested is straightforward if you’re black – and he even makes it as far as the evidence room, but he’s found out. And is now surrounded, with no obvious means of escape.

Meantime, Senator Donovan has a meeting with his father Henry – played by the wonderful Gerald McRaney, presently working miracles on This Is Us – who reveals that Donovan’s opponent is about to release an attack ad, going after his Huma-a-like aide Nilaa for attending a radical mosque years ago. Nilaa admits it and offers her resignation, but says that she was only there to tell them the error of their ways. So Donovan is all, bygones, I’m not getting rid of you. (I still think they’re hitting it, or that at least one of them wants to.) So well done, Senator.

Except that back at CTU Rebecca and Andy have traced the leak: it came from a terminal in Donovan’s campaign; specifically, that used by Nilaa. Ooh! But given that we’re only two episodes in, and 24 normally sets up a Bad Muslim scenario before pulling a switch, I don’t for a second think it actually was Nilaa. Then Keith gets freed and orders Rebecca and Andy to be arrested.

This is all decent stuff; hardly earth-shattering, but enjoyable enough. On the other hand, I could not care less, for now, about what’s happening at the School of Terror. Drew, the schoolboy dude, works out that there’s something going on between Amira – now confirmed as his ex – and Mr Harris, the compromised teacher, when he sees her fellating him. Not slow on the uptake, our Drew. He then gets his head caved in by Mr Harris, in one fell swoop disproving those who claim that schools just aren’t disciplinarian enough these days. Bizarrely, Mr Harris – who is apparently mixing enough explosive to kill everyone in the school – seems somewhat upset by this. But wasn’t Drew, uh, getting killed anyway? Maybe I’m missing something.

I’m also entirely uninterested in Aisha, who has overheard Isaac telling Nicole, his ex, that Aisha is getting kicked to the kerb, and so decides to touch base with a rival gang, offering them Isaac’s head in return for a piece of the action. Nicole, though, has worked out what is going on, which means that her place of safety isn’t quite so safe, not that I’m remotely bothered about any of them. And I can live without Jadalla, Jihadi Jr., taking over his father’s business as well.

In short, it’s a mix of good and not-so-good. And, with the exception of the scenes with Eric, it just isn’t quite exciting enough. 24 can afford to be many things – absurd, #problematic, and so on – but it really can’t afford to be dull. Not only that, but by the end of the episode Grimes has extended his deadline. An extended deadline? In 24? By now Jack Bauer would have rammed the $2 million up Grimes’s hoop.

Person of Interest s5 ep 1

We start with what sounds like the end: Root, in voiceover, wondering “Did we win? Did we lose?… I’m not even sure I know what victory would mean any more”. All of which serves to reassure us that we’re returning to the moral ambiguity which has been Person of Interest’s stock-in-trade ever since it changed from a superior procedural into a show about the pros and cons of a surveillance society, and a dozen other things besides.

Anyway, Reese, Finch, and Root are all on the run from Samaritan. Reese has the compressed Machine in a briefcase which has taken a few bullets, much to Finch’s horror, and it’s losing power. Or dying, if you want to look at it that way, which Finch undoubtedly does. They manage to get back to their subway lair, and while Reese goes to find Root Harold tries to save the Machine, which starts to decompress on its own, causing a fire. Meantime, in flashback, we see more of the genesis of the Machine (and a welcome appearance from Carrie Preston as Grace). I found the scenes in which Finch and the Machine converse to be intensely moving: it will be recalled that at the end of season 4 the Machine called Finch “father”; the Machine is, once more, adopting the persona of a child, wondering how it will be able to grow, and remember Finch, if he adheres to his plan to have it delete its memories every night. It might actually be exhibiting emotions, or it might simply be manipulating Finch; either way these are human characteristics, and Finch knows it.

As for Root: well, she’s running around New York City wearing dark clothing and toting a series of guns. The liberal handwringer in me should disapprove, but frankly she’s hot as hell; and her snarled “You can just call me Root, bitch”, to a Samaritan camera is fan service of the best kind. There’s a simple but devastating moment when Samaritan decides to turn members of the public into its operatives: I wondered how it was going to achieve that, but it does so simply by flashing up a picture of Root on mobile phones and labelling her as a danger. I don’t need to labour the point about how that might be read as a metaphor for what’s going on in society today.

While Fusco is being obliged to explain away the events of the last episode, in which Elias and Dominic were killed, to Internal Affairs, Root is betrayed by someone she thought was an ally, but Reese appears in time to save her. And help her to steal the three hundred PlayStation 3 consoles they need to provide enough processing grunt to save the Machine, with some handy liquid nitrogen to cool it. Which means that by the end it looks as if Finch’s child, The Machine, has survived for the final battle with Samaritan. This continues to be TV of the highest quality.

This Is Us s1 ep 12

The first This Is Us to dispense with the modern timeline entirely and stick with the past is a strangely superfluous one, repeating so many scenes we’ve already, er, seen, in a bid to flesh them out with detail I really don’t think we needed.

So, the babies’ in utero jam was Stevie Wonder! Rebecca really struggled in the last few days of her pregnancy! She forgot Jack’s birthday! Jack was lovely! The fireman who found Randall was going through a very rough marital patch! And Dr K… Well, Dr K is never superfluous to anything; Gerald McRaney is terrific and his story was quietly devastating, winning this week’s prize for making me cry the most.

Although, in fairness, Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia gave it a good shot with Rebecca and Jack’s story as well – their easy, comforting chemistry is lovely to watch – and even though I have never ever found myself wondering how the fireman who found Randall was getting on with his wife at the time, the ending of that story turned out to be sweet enough as well. Not a necessary episode, then, but a nice one: I smiled, I cried, and I didn’t have to put up with Kate and Toby, so I’m fine with it.

Public Service Announcement 7 of 2017: O.J.: Made in America, Broadchurch, Catastrophe, Quantico, Black-ish, Taken

Just as American Crime Story: The People v O.J. Simpson is one of the best TV dramas I’ve seen for years, ESPN’s Oscar-nominated non-fiction account of the Simpson story, O.J.: Made in America, is a truly outstanding documentary. It’s now available to UK viewers on the BBC iPlayer, and I can’t recommend it highly enough, although at three episodes, each clocking in at around three hours each, it represents a bit of a commitment. But don’t let that put you off.

Next, a couple of shows from this side of the Atlantic. I realise it’s disproportionate for me still to be annoyed about season 2 of Broadchurch, back this week for a third run, but taking TV too seriously is pretty much my niche. So here goes again: the decision to use the second season as a running criticism of the dramatic choices of the first season is one of the most insultingly stupid things I’ve ever seen on TV. In passing, I note that the Radio Times, which called season 2 “thumpingly good” while it was on, is now admitting that it “misfired”, which is a kind of moderate version of what I was saying at the time. So you can take its recommendation of the first episode of season 3 with a pinch of salt, I’d say. This time round I won’t be reviewing (Monday 27 February, 9pm, ITV).

I also thought season 2 of Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s marital dysfunction comedy Catastrophe to have fallen short of the standards of its first season: it had always been filthy and nasty, which I mean as a compliment, but in its second season it seemed to have misplaced the sweetness at its core and replaced it with a sour misanthropy, which made it much more difficult to love. So we’ll see what season 3 brings (Tuesday 28 February, 10pm, Channel 4).

Turning to American TV: first up is the return of Quantico. In season 1, beautiful FBI recruits – one of whom may be behind a deadly terrorist attack on Grand Central Station – slept with and betrayed each other, which makes it sound somewhat more appealing than it actually was. Lead character Alex Parrish (Priyanka Chopra) is, in season 2, off to the CIA, probably to do the same sort of thing. I stuck it out through the first season, but there’s next to no chance of me watching any more (Thursday 2 March, 9pm, Alibi).

Also starting: season 3 of Black-ish (Tuesday 28 February, 8.30pm, E4); and Amazon Prime in the UK has NBC’s adaptation of Taken, available within hours of broadcast in the US. As ever, Unpopcult applauds this practice (Tuesday 28 February).

Santa Clarita Diet

imageNetflix has taught me that when it comes to tv, I’m more about the buffet than the binge; my “Continue Watching” List is full of shows I’ve sampled but not gone back to, usually because I haven’t cared enough to bother. The latest of these is new zombie comedy – Netflix has also taught me that zombies have already taken over the world, they’re on the tv ALL THE TIME – Santa Clarita Diet, starring Unpopcult favourite Timothy Olyphant and perpetual romcommer Drew Barrymore.

Clearly determined to do something a bit different from their usual fare, Olyphant and Barrymore play Joel and Sheila, exaggeratedly dull real estate agents (or “real-a-tors” as Joel calls them) living a sort of Desperate Marrieds life in a wealthy California town which looks even less like a real place than Wisteria Lane did. Their mildly stressful, mostly sensible middle-class life takes a turn for the insane, however, when Sheila becomes a zombie with ravenous urges of all kinds, the most pressing, of course, being the urge to eat other people.

Like Dexter soundtracked by Dido, Santa Clarita Diet is a very odd, uneven mix of styles and tones: part gross-out comedy, part romantic one (not that different for Drew, then), part horror, part satire, and part feminist tract – the most interesting, provocative theme is that Sheila becoming one of the walking dead actually brings her to life, making her confident, assertive and happy in a way that years of placid domesticity had previously ironed out of her.

The mix is somewhat lumpy though; because each episode is so short (25 minutes), I had to watch three episodes to try and work out whether I liked it or not, and even now, I still don’t really know. It definitely has potential and I did laugh a few times – since I really don’t like gross-out comedy, a few times is a big deal – but, on the whole, it’s just too gory to be fun, too cheery to be horror and, ironically, too much of everything to be anything very much. The scene where Sheila makes her first kill, for instance, is clearly supposed to be played for laughs, but it’s so visceral and so unpleasant that I genuinely felt sick; I had to mute the sound and turn my head away till it was over, which is not what I’m looking for in my light entertainment, thanks very much.

Having watched the three eps, though, it seems like this is one of those shows that will get more confident and more coherent in tone as it goes on. Even 75 minutes isn’t much time when you’re trying to combine so many disparate tones but, by the end of ep 3, the Santa Clarita style seemed to be coming together, even if Barrymore is still in movie star rather than tv mode and very little about the story or the people in it seems real or true. Yes, I know, it’s a comedy about zombies, but the best genre tv is grounded in reality; Being Human, What We Do in the Shadows and the like work because they make the characters believable people, but the only people who get close to believable in Santa Clarita are teenage daughter Abby and her painfully awkward neighbour Eric. Everyone and everything else comes across as more spoof than substance, which is fine for a while but not for an entire season of cannibalism-as-comedy. Much as I love Timothy Olyphant, the Santa Clarita Diet really isn’t for me – I don’t think I’ll be back for seconds.

Hawaii Five-0 s7 ep 8

Grace is at a school dance, chaperoned by Danny, which is of course just about the worst thing imaginable if you’re Grace. Particularly as Danny is convinced that she has a boyfriend, and is determined to find out who it is. Meantime, Grover’s son Will – who was interrogated by his father last week about the identity of Grace’s boyfriend – is at the same dance and, per Grover, suddenly taking an interest in his personal hygiene. Well, we can join these dots easily enough: yes, in much the same way as the grand royal families of Europe would broker suitable marriages between their children, the Houses of Grover and Williams are to be joined in adolescent love. (Or they could just feature in a spinoff, called Grace & Will or something.)

But while Danny is interrogating the hapless Will, something happens to take his mind off his daughter’s love life: some gunmen burst in and take everyone apart from the two of them hostage, leaving Danny and Will with a kind of Die Hard-esque mission: stop the gunmen, alert the outside world, try not to get killed. This will mean, in some way, getting word to Steve, Grover and Chin, who are at a poker night with the extended Five-0 family, including Kamekona, and Dog the Bounty Hunter. Although since, as I’m writing this, Dog is at CPAC trying to rally support for a possible Senate run in Wisconsin by Sheriff David Clarke, a Trump consigliere, Dog can eff off.

The terrorists are trying to abduct the son of a Filipino diplomat in the hope of trading him for their leader, imprisoned in the Phillipines and about to be executed. Slight problem: according to the diplomat, and unknown to the wider world, he has in fact been executed ahead of schedule. So when Steve rocks up at the school he’s out of options, and is going to have to go in hot, which is kind of how he likes it anyway. As an episode, it isn’t without a certain charm, even if we have to add this to the list of unimaginable traumas to have befallen Grace. If the poor girl isn’t in therapy, she should be.

The Return of Bromance Watch! “Pick a base.”