I churned through a LOT of stuff this month. This was mainly because I was sick and tired of a very large folder full of BBC and ITV dramas that had been languishing on my computer for the last three years, so made myself watch one episode per night until I'd completed the lot.
And as it happened, January turned out to a month for murder: specifically those committed by murderesses. From cold-blooded killings to justified self-defence, this month featured four female killers across four different shows. Both Grace Marks (from Alias Grace) and Mary Anne Mowbray (from Dark Angel) were real-life women convicted of murder, their motivations left largely unexplained and their crimes harshly punished, while fictional killers in The Silkworm and Big Little Lies exist on opposite ends of the "justification" spectrum - one a loathsome psychopath and the other an undisputed hero.
All their stories were profoundly different: from a fascinating exploration of how stories can reshape facts to a fairly straightforward biopic; a gruesome whodunit to a riveting exposé of domestic violence masquerading as a black comedy about feuding housewives, it's intriguing to consider that women are at the front and centre of all these stories.
It wasn't just murder-mysteries though: I also finally caught up with season three of Arrow, slogged through the fifth book in the ever-growing volumes of The Obernewtyn Chronicles, revisited The Vampire Diaries (the original book series, not the CW show) and watched with a bunch of British miniseries – including two, coincidentally enough, that dealt with closeted gay men and the wives who must struggle with the reality of their lives as beards.
The Stone Key by Isobelle Carmody
Argh, this book took FOREVER to read. I think I started it back in November, and it went through about four renewals at the library as I struggled through the massive page-count. It's not that it was ever uninteresting (okay, maybe a few chapters lagged a bit) but I don't find it at all surprising that the American publications divided the original text into two volumes. It really is massive for what is ostensibly a YA book.
The fifth book to feature Elspeth Gordie (and her first person narrative) as the Guildmistress of Obernewtyn sees her once again using her immense physic power in a post-apocalyptic world to protect her fellow Misfits from the religious fanatics that rule the land. Allying herself with rebels to overthrow their regime has been the goal of the last three books, and for the first time definitive steps are taken toward accomplishing this objective.
Elspeth has a particularly vested interest in defeating the Herders: her love Rushton was captured by them and tortured into near-madness, leaving him in a state in which he can't stand the sight of her. It's all part of an elaborate ploy crafted by an old nemesis called Arial (the type of evil pretty-boy that fandom would instantly woobify) and Elspeth's role to play in a prophecy that pits them against each other in the hunt for Beforetime weapon-machines.
By this point the plot is sprawling and the world-building huge. Isobelle Carmody is to be given credit for keeping track of her myriad of characters and subplots, but it's with some relief that I note there are only two more books in the series (though each one is the size of a brick).
The Vampire Diaries by L.J. Smith
I'll always have a soft-spot for L.J. Smith's YA novels, even if most of them have dated badly, and usually contain nightmarish depictions of male/female romantic relationships. Yes, she's very good at female friendships, but her romances? Yeesh. Even when I was the target audience for these books, I was always infinitely more interested in the supernatural elements than the soap-opera relationships.
This book trilogy + coda (I'll explain that later) is now much better known through the CW television series, and involves a teenage girl in a love triangle with two super-hot vampire brothers (I swear I've seen an interview with Smith in which she takes a swipe at Stephanie Meyer for stealing her idea).
Elena Gilbert is the most popular girl in her high school and when Stefan Salvatore (yes, really) turns up as a new student, she ropes her besties Meredith and Bonnie into snaring him as her latest boyfriend. The fact that he's immune to her charms only makes her more determined, especially when she realizes he's the Tortured with a Terrible Dark Secret type. Check out this expert from her diary:
"Maybe you think I'm terrible for loving him, considering what he is. He can be violent and I know there are some things in his past that he's ashamed of. But he could never be violent towards me, and the past is over. He has so much guilt and he hurts so much inside. I want to heal him."
RED FLAGS. RED FLAGS EVERYWHERE.
Look, I realize we're at a point in fandom history where half the population is sick to death of these "good girl redeems bad boy through the power of her love" narratives and the other half still can't get enough of 'em, and it's turned into a massive on-line war about censorship and abuse and purity politics, but for me personally, at this specific point in time, I fall into the former category. Even as an adult who acknowledges there's enjoyment to be derived from this kind of melodrama without condoning it as something that's desirable in real life, I still can't help but cringe at these types of love stories and how they condition us into thinking this is how all fictional romance should be depicted.
And true to the textbook case of what unhealthy relationships do to you, Elena ends up pushing away her friends and family, neglecting her schoolwork, making her life revolve around her new boyfriend, getting engaged about a month into the relationship, and ending up dead – the whole shebang.
There are technically four books in the original series (apparently more have been written by Smith and others, though I've been told they're terrible) though it reads more like a trilogy and a weird coda. The first three are tightly connected, with a singular villain and an unfolding mystery, while the fourth switches narrators from Elena to Bonnie and introduces a secondary villain. That said, you can't really separate them, as the last book's reveal (someone is a secret werewolf, a twist Smith came up with before J.K. Rowling) is seeded in the very first instalment.
But there's also a clumsy retcon (a character is established to have been killed long ago, but nope – he's alive without any explanation), scattered clues regarding Mrs Flowers the mysterious landlady that are never picked up on, and a conclusion that's just bonkers. Basically, Elena dies in the second book and comes back as a vampire in the third, only to die for real at the end of the trilogy – even though it would made a suitably bittersweet ending to have her remain a vampire and being forced to leave her friends and family.
Instead the fourth book ends with Elena – and I swear I'm not making this up – just falling out of the sky, alive and naked and a human being once more. It's utterly out of the blue and remains completely unexplained. It's still the most bewildering deus ex machina I've ever read, right up there with Hermione's statue coming to life in A Winter's Tale, and that was freaking Shakespeare. I have no idea how this plays out in the TV show, if it does at all, but it's truly one of the most random things I've ever read.
Robin of Sherwood by Richard Carpenter
I grabbed this at a book sale for reasons I can't quite recall. I have all three seasons of the Richard Carpenter show on DVD, so perhaps I just wanted to see how the novelisation compared with the episodes? Or maybe it was just the novelty of seeing a tie-in book from an Eighties television show still floating around.
In any case, this contained written versions of four episodes in the final season – you know, the one no one really liked because they had to replace Robin after Michael Praed's departure, even though Jason Connery had a much more dynamic arc in integrating himself with the outlaws, coping with the abandonment of his duties as the Earl's son, and trying to woo Marion despite her grief over the former Robin's death. Carpenter also threw in a semi-interesting reveal that Robin and Guy of Gisbourne were half-brothers – apparently inspired by the similarities of the actors themselves.
Granted, none of these ideas got fleshed out to their full potential, but they certainly made their mark when it came to how later Robin Hood films and shows adapted the material. Secret half-brothers, Saracens and silver arrows (as opposed to the original gold one) are now part-and-parcel of the Robin Hood mythos, though I don't think anyone has ever recaptured the underlying sense of mysticism that Carpenter brought to the proceedings.
The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith
Let's be honest, were it not for the revelation that J.K. Rowling had been writing these crime novels under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, no one would have ever paid them much attention. I had certainly never heard of Cormoran Strike before the news broke that Rowling had been secretly publishing them, and I'm not sure I would have pegged her as the writer even if I had read them prior to finding out who the author was.
Of course, it does make sense that she would try her hand at crime fiction. When it comes to the Harry Potter novels, it was always the mystery element rather than the fantasy or coming-of-age or boarding-school story aspects that caught my attention, and you have to admit she came up with some pretty spectacular puzzle-box plots. Moving to whodunits feels like a pretty natural stepping stone in her career.
Cormoran Strike and his new secretary Robin Ellicott (I'm sensing a bird theme here) make for a good duo when it comes to investigating the apparent suicide of beautiful young model Lula Landry, who died after plummeting from her third storey balcony. Her brother is adamant it was murder, though his evidence just seems to be a blurry figure on some CCTV footage.
It's not a bad mystery, and there are some insights into the downsides of fame that are particularly telling when you recall who the author is.
The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
If the previous book dealt with fame and the paparazzi, subjects that Rowling has extensive inside knowledge on, this one deals with the trials and tribulations of the publishing world – something she's even more embroiled in.
One would hope that it's not quite as acrimonious as she portrays it, which involves an author being murdered in a horrific way after his latest manuscript makes thinly veiled references to a swath of colleges and family members. It's a standard Asshole Victim setup with a multitude of suspects, but the stakes are raised by having the victim's long-suffering wife and his special-needs daughter put at risk by the police investigation.
Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones
Possibly one of Wynne Jones's best novels, though nowhere near as well-known as Howl's Moving Castle or the Chrestmanci books (that said, none of her books are as well-known as they should be. Why the BBC didn't capitalize on them in the wake of Harry Potter is a mystery for the ages).
The Dog Star known as Sirius is thrown from the heavens after a court ruling that finds him guilty for stealing a Zoi, sentencing him to life as a mortal dog that can only return to the skies if he finds and returns this lost artefact – though the reader has no more idea of what it is than Sirius does once he is born on Earth as a puppy.
I mean, wow. That's a synopsis I've never written before. How did she come up with these ideas? The story captures life as a dog perfectly, especially one that has to struggle with his simple doggie brain in order to access his memories as an all-seeing, all-powerful star, and along with the heartfelt relationship Sirius forges with Maggie (the girl who rescues him from drowning) Wynne Jones also finds room to insert the Welsh god Arawn and the Wild Hunt.
Also, it's amazing how obvious it is that J.K. Rowling was inspired by Wynne Jones, especially when it comes to names. I could have chalked it down to coincidence this book features a large dog is called Sirius, but that he shares a house with a cat called Remus? From an author that's also written about magical castles, evil-warning scars and a guy called Angus Filch? No way.
Yes, the nostalgia that Stranger Things piqued still has its hold on me, and perhaps more than any other single piece of entertainment, it is E.T. that inspired the Netflix show (with Eleven as E.T., Mike as Elliot, and lots and lots of bike-riding). There's not much to say about a film that's been cross-examined within an inch of its life, but what struck me this time around was just how simple the plot is. An alien gets stranded on Earth, and a little boy helps him contact his home. That's it.
It's in the details that surround this premise and the raw human emotion Spielberg poured into it that the film finds its power. Consider that we know next to nothing about E.T. as a character, beyond the fact that he wants to go home. All the emphasis is on the siblings and their joint effort to help out a friend, even in the wake of their father's abandonment.
As it happens, I ended up watching the anniversary edition – you know, the one that covers E.T. in CGI and replaces all the guns with walkie-talkies? It's terrible, not only robbing the viewer of the incredible puppetry, but also removing the very real sense of danger that accompanied the boys' frantic bike ride to get E.T. back to the forest. Stick with the original, folks.
Arrow: Season 3 (2014 – 2015)
There's so much stuff I want to watch later on in the CW superhero continuity (namely the crossovers) that I felt it was time to brace myself and get through the earlier Arrow seasons. It's been well-established that this was the point in which the show started to go downhill, and it's not difficult to see why. There's no single terrible creative decision, but a lot of minor problems that accumulate. Let's go through them.
First of all, Ra's-al-Ghul is horribly miscast, with no presence or menace whatsoever (kind of like Vandal Savage in the first season of Legends of Tomorrow). It's impossible to imagine him as a Machiavellian immortal in charge of a fleet of deadly assassins – especially when said assassins are eventually taken out by Felicity with a metal pole. Without a decent villain, there's no sense of danger.
Then there's the ongoing problem the show has with women. The first season's plot was built around Malcolm Merlyn trying to avenge his dead wife; the second around Slade Wilson's evil plan to avenge his dead love interest (who wasn't even that into him). The third season kick-starts with the murder of Sara Lance, and quickly introduces tech-genius Ray Palmer, whose tragic backstory is – you guessed it – a dead fiancée.
I knew that fandom hated Ray when he first turned up, and I assumed it was down to the fact he was a romantic rival to Oliver regarding Felicity – but nope, he really does throw up a lot of red flags: introducing himself to Felicity under false pretences, keeping her off-guard regarding his intentions and propositions, buying the company she works for so that he's technically her boss, giving her expensive gifts that he expects her to wear, finding out her whereabouts by tapping into her cellphone – it's all pretty damn creepy. I'd already seen the character in Legends of Tomorrow and Brandan Routh has a benign "aw shucks" vibe which alleviates some of the problem, but on paper the whole thing is appalling.
Thea gets a raw deal as well, and the male/female double standard when it comes to dealing with male characters is pronounced. When Thea finds out about Ollie's secret identity as the Arrow, she apologises to him for buying into his cover-act as a spoiled reprobate. That he forced Roy to break up with her – a choice that threw her directly into the path of Slade Wilson and Malcolm Merlyn – is never brought up. It actually hurt me to see her say things like: "I was so stupid to break up with you," to Roy, or unquestioningly accept Ollie as a vigilante when Detective Lance is allowed to be furious at Ollie's deception and his decision to keep Sara's death a secret (anger that the narrative treats as misdirected, but totally justified).
What the rest of the characters chose not to tell this girl is appalling: first Malcolm drugs her into killing Sara, and then Oliver becomes bizarrely fixated on protecting him. There's absolutely no reason why Ollie would want to keep Merlyn in their lives, his justification in doing so makes barely any sense (something, something, infiltrating the League of Assassins, whatever) and that he forces Thea to keep the man in her own home after she makes it very clear she wants nothing to do with him is just cruel.
Oh, and after Roy fakes his own death, nobody bothers to tell her it was a hoax until several days – possibly weeks – later. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE?? Seriously, Thea had the right idea at the end of last season: ditch every last one of them. Except Laurel. Laurel doesn't screw her over, and might be able to put her in touch with a decent therapist.
As it happens, Laurel has a decent arc in this season, even though her decision to keep Sara's death a secret from her father is pretty screwed up. But I liked her transformation into Black Canary (the show certainly doesn't make it easy for her, and it takes extensive training and several beat-downs before she's able to hold her own) and her unlikely friendship with Nyssa is definitely a high-point.
Surprisingly, I also liked the Hong Kong flashbacks. Yes, they were largely filler, and Ollie's decent into the cold-blooded killer we saw at the beginning of the show is hampered by the fact Stephen Amell doesn't have the acting chops to differentiate that version of Ollie from the one gradually regaining his humanity, but I really liked Tatsu and it filled in a couple of blanks in Ollie's accumulated skill-set.
But other bits are just plain idiotic. Would you believe that Shado had a never-before-mentioned twin sister? And that Ollie just happens to run into her in the middle of a busy market place in China? And on hearing that her sister and father are dead, she tearfully thanks Oliver for giving her closure instead of demanding the when/where/how and whys of their deaths? And did anyone consider that she probably died in the virus that was unleashed on the city just a few days later? Or that her presence could have come in handy when Slade was wreaking havoc in Starling City a season ago, if not just to throw him off-guard?
But my favourite "what the...?" moment would have to be when Felicity announces there's a robbery in progress somewhere in the city – only for the scene to cut to the thieves just turning up to the place in question. What, the computer can see into the future now?
And then of course, there's Olicity. Look, I have nothing against this ship, but at the same time it doesn’t interest me at all. And although Emily Brett Rickards is a great comedic actress, she isn't as convincing with the dramatic stuff – and as it happens, being the love interest of the hero is a very different gig than the quirky tech-girl. Suddenly you're crying in every other scene, and begging the hero Not To Go Do That Brave Thing. You'll get romantic subplots with guest stars that everyone will hate because it's getting in the way of what they really want for you, and all of your free time will be subsumed by these new love quadrilaterals.
Fandom will get on your case because it's now your narrative role to be a distraction and obstacle to the hero, and therefore the plots. You'll have to prioritize your man over all other considerations, whether it be your own career or the lives of innocent people. And that job as a vice president in a huge corporation? Nah, you're giving that up to go live in the suburbs.
So Felicity, welcome to the role of Love Interest on a CW superhero show, and try not to pay too much attention to Laurel, who (now free of the trope) gets to explore platonic friendships with other men and women, strike out on her own as a masked vigilante, enjoy clear character growth, and get a heart-breaking arc with her father.
It's actually pretty fascinating to watch.
An Adventure in Space and Time (2013)
After seeing David Bradley as the First Doctor in last year's Doctor Who Christmas Special, I was finally spurred to watch An Adventure in Space and Time, which explores the creation of the show back in the 1960s and its behind-the-scenes drama. Producer Verity Lambert and director Waris Hussein are tasked with the new Head of Drama's brainchild: an educational science-fiction show that'll teach children something about history.
The odds are stacked against them: their gender/race, the time/budget constraints, their relative lack of experience, the scepticism of their co-workers, the cantankerousness of actor William Hartnell, even the fact that President Kennedy is assassinated on premiere night – but there's something about the show that sparks the imaginations of its audience.
There are some details missing; odd omissions that even a casual fan such as I missed, like the fact the Daleks were modelled on salt shakers, or that the budget was so low they occasionally had to resort to cardboard cut-outs. But it's at its most poignant when it deals with the passage of time and the mutability of relationships: Verity and Waris are the producer and director of the show at its inception, but when they decide to move on, they're not seen again. The spotlight therefore turns to the ailing William Hartnett, who finds it increasingly difficult to keep up with the demands of the show's schedule.
Which is a theme that's ingrained in the template itself: constantly changing, constantly reinventing itself. Even now it's dated: in Hartnell's final scene he is introduced to Patrick Troughton and then glances across the Tardis console to see Matt Smith in a silent cameo role. It's a lovely silent bridge between past and present – and yet as of 2018, Smith is already two Doctors past.
An Inspector Calls (2015)
Storytime: this play was required reading at my high school, but not to me personally. I started flicking through my best friend's copy and became so intrigued that I ended up taking it home to finish. That's gotta be maximum geekiness: to read the set texts that aren't even part of your curriculum.
It centres around a mysterious inspector who crashes the engagement party of the Birling family, whose daughter Shelia is marrying family friend Gerald Croft. As he interviews them separately, they discover that each one had dealings with an increasingly impoverished girl called Eva, who they collectively drove to suicide. Now justice has come knocking...
Taking place in a dining room over the course of a single evening, the television adaptation naturally takes the opportunity to branch out a little and have flashbacks to past events. That said, it goes a little too far in drawing out the ending. In the play, the family are rejoicing the fact that the inspector was (apparently) an imposter, only for a phone call to tell them a suicide has taken place. It strikes the fear of God into their hearts, because who else could the inspector have been but a supernatural agent?
A little embellishment on this scene would have been fine, but this adaptation shows the inspector going to Eva's apartment, Eva preparing for her suicide, Eva choking on the disinfectant and getting taken to the hospital, all intercut with scenes of the Birlings celebrating, then flashbacks to Eva getting her photograph taken at the shore, then her on the beach as a child, THEN the inspector sitting with her body at the morgue – OKAY WE GET IT. A little goes a long way, and this gilds the lily to the point where the story is almost robbed of its power.
Almost. For the most part, An Inspector Calls comes like gun that is squarely pointed at hypocrisy... and fired. Yes, it revolves around a dead girl, but it's not an example of a Disposable Woman since the whole thing is a fierce and merciless demand for justice, and one that doesn't go unaccounted for. It reminds me of that recent quote from Doctor Who:
"Human progress isn't measured by industry. It's measured by the value you place on a life... an unimportant life... a life without privilege. The boy who died on the river, that boy's value is your value. That's what defines an age. That's... what defines a species."
In this case, Eva's is a life that no one cared about, one that an entire family chewed up and spat out – and yet just this once, crimes of spite and carelessness and lust and pettiness aren't brushed under the rug. Eva gets a voice in death. I never realized just how powerful it all is until recently.
Out of all the interactions Eva had with the family, most striking is Gerald's treatment of her. They meet when he rescues her from a lecherous old man, and though he shows her kindness and chivalry, it's obvious that he expects – almost subconsciously – something in return. It's not even done in a predatory way, the two of them are just following the beats of every story that involves a man coming to the rescue of a woman. It's so frustrating to watch how Eva is trapped by her own gratefulness, her own awareness of the narrative she's stumbled into, where of COURSE she has to reciprocate the attentions of Gerald because that's just how the story goes. She has no choice but to follow through or else be deemed an unappreciative witch.
It's powerful stuff.
Dark Angel (2016)
Of all the actors from the BBC's Robin Hood that could have reunited in another project, why did it have to be Joanne Froggatt and Jonas Armstrong?? AKA Robin and Kate. AKA the worst couple that has ever been inflicted on audiences and who ten years later still makes me want to tear my hair out. But I digress. This is the two-part story of Mary Anne Mowbray, a real woman (1832 – 1873) who is said to have murdered three of her four husbands with arsenic so as to cash in on their life insurance.
It's fairly light despite its subject matter, and not a huge amount of interest is taken in why exactly this woman chose to murder so many people, including children. The fact that she lost so many of her own children must have surely taken a psychological toll, and yet the miniseries doesn't delve deep into her motivations. In this it contrasts unfavourably with Alias Grace, which was a master class of exploring similar themes.
The murders themselves are treated almost as inconsequential to Mary Anne's spirit and frustration with her lot in life, and aside from depicting her husbands as hapless fools, you don't really feel for any of them and nothing is done to show us the true weight of her crimes. In a way I felt as though the story wanted me to sympathise with Mary Anne, and – well, I feel I've probably mentioned very recently that I'm not currently in the mood for Sympathy for the Devil.
Grease Live! (2016)
This one feels like it's been sitting on my desktop the longest, but I've gotta say I always enjoy these live-action television musicals (even if this one went a bit overboard in actually showing the live studio audience sitting behind the performers).
But it was a great take on Grease, which took the opportunity to include songs that were cut from the John Travolta/Olivia Newton John movie (I'd never heard "Freddy My Love" or Frenchie's precursor to "Beauty School Dropout" before) even as it leaned a bit too far in the other direction when it recreated certain outfits and hairstyles from the film (all the teens wear exactly the same prom outfits as their movie counterparts).
All the performers are good, but Vanessa Hudgens steals the show as Rizzo to the point where even Julianne Hough and Aaron Tveit as Danny and Sandy fade a little whenever in her vicinity (and their relationship is still something I can't invest in for a second, despite the catchy songs). Keke Palmer captures Marty's deliberate air of sophistication (something I was in awe of even as a kid), Jan and Frenchy (Carly Rae Jepson!) are adorable, and there are a couple of fun cameos from the original cast. The T-birds, however, remain indistinguishable.
Jonathan Creek: Daemon's Roost (2016)
What happened to this show? Without exaggeration I can say that the first three seasons (and some of the fourth) are some of the best things I've ever seen in my life. I have all the episodes on DVD and I've watched them countless times. Some of the mysteries, such as Mother Redcap or Satan's Chimney or Murder at Gallow's Gate are masterpieces of plotting, characterization, black comedy and ingenious puzzle-box mysteries.
But it just goes to show that there's only so much invention a single human brain can produce, as the last few episodes and specials have been abysmal – not just by Jonathan Creek standards, but by television standards. Half the time I don't understand what I'm watching, and writer David Renwick seems to have settled on a formula: combining an unsolved historical mystery, a modern day crime, and a few other disconnected puzzles. But from the beauty of Satan's Chimney (effortlessly blending all three threads) to the clunkiness of The Grinning Man (only tangentially connecting them) to the utter incoherency of The Clue of the Savant's Thumb, we're brought to this: Daemon's Roost, which falls somewhere between Grinning Man and Savant's Thumb in terms of quality.
By this stage there are a lot of things missing from the show: the windmill, the magic show, Adam Klaus – even the duffel coat! But most of all, Maddy Magellan (Caroline Quentin) whose chemistry with Alan Davis was just magical, and has not yet come close to being replaced.
None of that would matter if the mysteries themselves were of the same quality, but now episodes are just cluttered. Here we have a creepy old house where people died mysteriously, a Satanist who was said to have levitated people to their doom, and a solved murder case that may not be as clear-cut as Jonathan initially thought. None of these strands have much to do with each other, and Jonathan and his wife are brought to Daemon's Roost after a villain from way back in season one is released from jail and comes looking for revenge (unfortunately the continuity is counter-productive since Renwick doesn't even give him the right name, and his thug-like appearance is totally at odds with the modus operanti of his original crime).
More than anything, I think a sense of grounded-ness has been lost, which results in later episodes feeling incredibly bizarre in a way the earlier ones didn't. It has a lot to do with the lack of a police presence; past episodes showed Jonathan and Maddy either helping or hindering the cops, which lent the proceedings a sense of realism. In this case a man staying in the house with Jonathan mysteriously disappears, but after his wife tells the harrowing story of what happened the night before ... she just wanders off. No one considers filing a missing person's report. Later Jonathan straight-up kills a man (albeit in self-defence) but we only see a glimpse of the police taking the body away. Don’t they need to question him at all?? Even the guy who dies of natural causes doesn't get removed by the appropriate authorities – they just stash him in the house for the sake of dumb gag!
Without reasonable people acting realistically to the weird occurrences around them, it's impossible to feel the weight or creepiness of the mystery. It all just feels unspeakably random.
To Walk Invisible (2016)
This one is definitely worth watching: a two hour biopic about the three Brontë sisters and their brother Bramwell. It was good timing for me, having just finished Catherynne Valente's The Glass House Game last month, which revolved around the siblings' childhood stories of Gondal – which are also alluded to here.
It's a rather bleak tale, as the lives of the Brontës weren't particularly happy ones (none of them lived to see forty) and yet it's brimming with life: joy, anguish, hope, frustration. Most of that last one comes from the conduct of their brother Bramwell, who falls into alcoholism after a failed affair with a married woman and his inability to hold down a job.
It's hard not to want to throttle Bramwell for his selfishness, and it's infuriating the way his sisters' lives are forced to revolve so utterly around him and the financial stress he creates – even after his death he causes trouble, since it was at his funeral that Emily caught the illness that led to her death. Think of what else she could have written after Wuthering Heights!
Frittering away the family's income on drink, his sisters turn to novel-writing as a way to make ends meet. Sensible Charlotte, cantankerous Emily, sweet-natured Anne – instead of focusing on what inspired them to write their stories (save for Heathcliffe's electrifying entrance into Emily's imagination) this instead examines how and why they were so desperate to keep their identities a secret.
It captures their youthful genius and legacy to the world, pointing out (without going overboard) the double-standard that existed between male and female novelists. They're almost panicked at the thought of their true identities being discovered, partly because of the mockery they expect, and partly because they need to protect Bramwell's ego from their success. In the latter case, it's ironic to think of how irrelevant he is in light of his sisters' enduring fame.
Man in an Orange Shirt (2017)
It was my ongoing stalking of the main cast of Merlin that brought me to this, with Angel Coulby in a small but rather charming role. This is especially true when you take into account the fact her character is pregnant with twins, just as she was in The Tunnel.
The story is divided into two parts, the first detailing the love affair between Michael and Thomas in the post-war years, their attempts to keep it from Michael's wife Flora, and Flora's reaction when she discovers her husband's history. The second half deals with Michael's grandson Adam, also gay, but just as miserable despite the improved degree of tolerance since his grandfather's day.
Flora is the link between the two stories; she's the only character that has a significant part to play in each one, but the miniseries itself is a bit confusing. Is it about the gay couples or the effect their lies and deceit have on Flora, who must live her life as an unwilling beard? Furthermore, neither one of the love stories are particularly romantic. It's unclear what the couples share beyond sex, and as such it's hard to really feel the tragedy of their separation (in the first case) or the joy at their reconciliation (in the second).
It's nicely acted, nicely written, nicely filmed, and has Angel Coulby, but it's also rather forgettable somehow.
The Cuckoo's Calling/The Silkworm (2017)
So I read The Cuckoo's Calling before watching the adaptation, and watched The Silkworm before reading the book. As is the case ninety-nine percent of the time, it's better to read before viewing. And oddly, the first book gets three episodes to tell its story, while the second only two.
Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger are pretty much spot-on in the casting for Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott, though the mysteries themselves are pretty standard fare. As I said earlier, there's no way they would get this treatment if it wasn't for the fact Robert Galbraith was J.K. Rowling, and despite remaining fairly loyal to the text, there's not a lot here to set the show apart from the usual BBC crime drama fare.
That said, I'm looking forward to the upcoming Career of Evil (which I'm in the middle of reading now) since it lends itself much better to adaptation.
The Miniaturist (2017)
This was an odd one, a two-part miniseries based on the book by Jessie Burton which is best described as a Gothic mystery set in Amsterdam. The genre and the setting mesh surprisingly well, though the story is a bit of a mess, held together by Anya Taylor-Joy's performance. You'll want to keep your eye on her – she's best known for the The Witch, but I first saw her in Atlantis where she played the young oracle, shaved head and all.
Here she plays Petronella, who travels from country to city after her marriage to Johannes Brandt. She arrives in a house full of secrets: nervous servants, hostile sister-in-law, and a largely-absent husband who makes any excuse not to sleep with her. The possibility of incest lingers over the siblings, but in an attempt to distract his young wife, Johannes sends for an elaborate doll's house, giving Nella the funds she needs to furnish it with miniatures from a speciality store.
Items arrive, but (with the requisite hint of the supernatural to be found throughout Gothic stories) many of them seem to portend the future: a cradle, a cone of sugar, a dog with a wound. It's a great setup, but none of the myriad of plots seem to go anywhere – especially that of the miniaturist, which fizzles out in a deeply unsatisfying way. Still, it has a nice atmosphere and looks really beautiful – I'd say it's worth watching as a curiosity.
Alias Grace (2017)
I've already posted on this show and its outcome, so I don't really have much to add. 2017 was obviously a good year for Margaret Atwood, though between Alias Grace and The Handmaid's Tale, I think this has the edge on quality. As powerful as The Handmaid's Tale can be, some of its world-building is a little scattershot, whereas Alias Grace has a very firm grasp of time, place and purpose.
Based on the real-life case of Grace Marks, who spent nearly thirty years in prison for her part in the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery, the story is framed around her telling her life story to Doctor Simon Jordon, who is deeply disturbed by the effect it has on all his preconceptions.
At its core (and in a fascinating way) the book and show is all about the power of women – even when they seemingly have none. At a time when a young woman had next to no control over her life, Alias Grace depicts a girl who somehow manages to hold dozens of men in her thrall – to the point where she drives one of them into complete madness.
As with Mary Anne Mowbray in Dark Angel, it's terrifying to see what women are capable of when they're desperate enough. And ironically the very specific type of feminine power that men fear is handed to Grace by the rules of the patriarchy that she's forced to navigate. The men in her life hold the keys, the chains, the ropes – but with nothing else available to her, she learns how to use her beauty, her words and her notoriety in ways that keep everyone dancing to her tune. Or does she? That's the clincher; we never really know what's going on behind her eyes.
And it's not just Grace either. One of the best reasons to read the book as well as watch the show is to get more insight into the relationship between Doctor Jordan and his landlady, particularly in how she manages to exert an astonishing amount of power over him, even while she herself is penned in by poverty, her husband's neglect, and the social expectations around her.
The Tunnel: Vengeance (2017)
The fact that The Tunnel went from ten episodes in its first season to eight in its second and then six in its third is perhaps an indicator of its diminishing returns. Plot threads from the previous two seasons (the Peloton conspiracy and Elise's affair with Erika) are totally ignored here, and instead the show pits our two detectives – English Karl Roebuck and French Elise Wasserman – against another "truth terrorist" who makes overt political statements amidst absolute carnage.
Perhaps the biggest problem with series three is the suspension of disbelief. The elaborate schemes of a military-trained ex-cop could be swallowed the first time around, but when the culprits are an unemployed schlub and an off-the-radar refugee who lives in a caravan park? Where on earth are they getting the money, resources and expertise to pull off their ever-more elaborate kidnappings, complete with high-tech equipment, industrial sabotage, and pin-point accuracy?
Also thrown in is a case in which a missing child is found several years after Elise helped put away his father for murder, leaving her to grapple with overwhelming guilt. What, sleeping with Erika wasn't enough? Oh, and a subplot about Karl's daughter and nude selfies, and an illegal immigrant about to be deported who takes drastic action to prevent it from happening. Both are fairly pointless, and the latter only exists to shine a good light on Karl rather than any actual interest in the woman or her plight.
It's certainly not so bad as to be unwatchable – it's suspenseful, well-acted and gorgeously filmed (though Angel Coulby only appears very briefly) but it ends with one last awful misstep: Elise's death. Apparently the show's producer is on record as saying: "What if we do the one thing no-one else would ever do?"
What? Kill off your female lead? Like Maid Marian from the BBC's Robin Hood, or Abbie Mills from Sleepy Hollow, or Veil from Into the Badlands, or Vanessa Ives from Penny Dreadful, or Laurel Lance from Arrow, or Xena from Xena Warrior Princess?
I'm just so weary of this. WHY do people still think that killing off your female lead is shocking?? It happens ALL THE TIME. Do these people not watch television at all?
Look, even if you don't give a damn about the sexist undertones to all this (because male characters in male/female partnerships die less often, and when they do it's in considerably more proactive, heroic ways) at least be aware that it's NOT as edgy and brave and unique as you think it is. It's really not.
Big Little Lies (2017)
I actually watched this across the New Year, with the last episode viewed on the first of January. Here’s the story of how I discovered it: even before all the accolades and awards were handed out, it was a GIF set on Tumblr of the three leads that caught my eye: Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley were having one hell of a reaction to something, though I had no idea what.
I remember reblogging it with the tags: #I don't know what's going on here #but it looks intense
And it was! I can't give too much away, but at only six episodes it's not too much of a time commitment, and the pay-off is so worth it. If I had watched this in 2017, the scene that led me to watch the whole thing would have absolutely been on my list of that year's Best Television Moments, and seeing it unfold was one incredibly satisfying viewing experience.
Based on the book by Liana Moriarty but with its setting moved from Australia to America, it fools you into think it's just about feuding housewives and career women before making a totally unabashed statement on the primal bonds women share with each other (that may sound hokey, but when you watch it you'll hopefully see what I mean).