Speechless: a review

It has been a very long time since I sat down and watched a family comedy with any regularity. Truth be told, I think that would have been Malcolm in the Middle’s inaugural season back at the turn of the century. In the current age of peak TV, with so little time, there is always something good that you are going to miss out on. My tastes generally lean towards dark comedy that is peppered throughout TV dramas such as Better Call Saul. So it may come as a surprise to see me gushing over Speechless.

Speechless is an ABC comedy that revolves around the working class DiMeo family. Maya (Minnie Driver) and Jimmy (John Ross Bowie) are parents to J.J. (Micah Fowler), Ray (Mason Cook) and Dylan (Kyla Kenedy). Eldest son, J.J. has cerebral palsy. He is non-verbal, wheelchair dependant and requires a personal aide worker, Kevin (Cedric Yarbrough), at school. Watching the every day struggles of this family with the added complications of advocating for people with disabilities in an atmosphere of love and humour is such a joyful experience. I wish I started watching this sooner, but better late than never.

I first heard of this TV show when the pilot episode was made available as a free download via iTunes. I downloaded it for a couple of reasons, it was free and I absolutely adore Minnie Driver (ever since my first big screen encounter, Circle of Friends) but I never got around to watching it. Then my beloved Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast featured it alongside This is Us. I liked what I heard about it; alas I had too much to watch at the time. Since everyone at work was talking about This is Us, I decided to jump on that band wagon (glad I did) first. Speechless remained at the back of my mind. Then came March Break and a long flight home. What should I find but the first 4 episodes of Speechless available as inflight entertainment. I binged it and was hooked. Since then I have caught up because 2 seasons worth of episodes (23+18) are replayed most evenings on Canada’s Family Channel.

Speechless has much of the quirky charm that made Malcolm in the Middle so endearing. I love that Speechless eschews a laugh track. The writing is super clever (as opposed to a string of cultural references that often passes as comedy) and it deftly manages to flesh out each member of this scrappy family beyond the usual TV sit-com formula. Sure Maya is a mama bear and Jimmy is pretty laid back but there is more to them than that. We see Maya bulldozing through as she advocates for her eldest son’s needs. She is often oblivious to the needs of her other children. Her forceful and flawed nature is tempered with humour and charm. Jimmy stands back and watches, most of the time. Yet in doing so, he sees all. His timely yet gentle interaction with each of his children, often 1-on-1, strikes a brilliant balance. Despite being non-verbal, J.J. is in no way non-communicative. With the use of a word board and laser pointer we hear him loud and clear. His personality is mischievous, sarcastic and the endless sibling rivalry is hilarious to watch. Youngest child Dylan seems to channel her anger and energy in athletics with a furious passion to win. Middle child Ray is such a nervous rule follower. He is constantly at odds with the rest of his family. We watch his pain as he gets roped into family schemes as they navigate a complicated bureaucracy of school administrators and insurance adjusters.

A part of me can relate to many of these characters. I have a soft spot for Maya, she’s an imperfect take charge kind of mom. I can also relate to Ray, as a young person striving for the things out of his reach due to stark financial hardship. The DiMeo’s make no secret of how expensive it is to have chronic health problems in the USA these days and yet this show never gets preachy about it. This show is often zinger after zinger, with some physical comedy thrown in that really cracks me up.

This show is the brainchild of Scott Silveri (best known as a writer on Friends) who modeled the DiMeo’s after his own family that included a brother with cerebral palsy. This show is nuanced in how it treats people with special needs. It deserves kudos in all its casting, bust special mention to Micah Fowler, who also has cerebral palsy, as J.J. If you are looking for a show that has depth in its characters and themes and will also make you chuckle, then this is definitely worth a try. I am eagerly anticipating its return this fall for a 3rdseason and will have my PVR set for it.

Advertisements

UnREAL: a review

 

I recently binge-watched UnReal with my youngest daughter over a couple of weeks. I decided to take a chance when I saw season 1 on sale for $4.99 on iTunes. At 50 cents an episode, I could afford to take a chance. I was vaguely aware of it as a critically lauded series created by Marti Noxon (writer and executive producer of my beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro (former producer on The Bachelor). When I heard from a friend (who knows someone in the business) that this show is a very realistic depiction of reality TV “sausage-making“, I was intrigued.

I should be clear that I really can’t stand watching reality TV, so a peek behind the curtain was sheer schadenfreude. I should be ashamed. Truly, but I am not, because this show is so well-written, brilliantly acted and thematically layered. UnReal is a show about a Bachelor-like dating competetion reality TV show called Everlasting.  The heart of this show is a complex relationship between 2 women, the show runner Quinn (Constance Zimmer) and her frontline producer and protege Rachel (Shirt Appleby). These women are exceedingly good at their jobs. However, their jobs require them to be horrible. And yet, the TV audience can’t get enough! Unfortunately, normalization of their horrible behaviour takes a toll on their lives.

UnREAL is a very nuanced example of competence porn TV with more than a hint of soapiness. It is funny, sad, shocking, vulgar, abrasive and thematically rich. Shiri Appleby shines as highly conflicted and psychologically damaged Rachel, Everlasting’s top producer. Constance Zimmer’s portrayal of tough-as-nails Quinn is in a category of her own (Emmy nomination 2016 well deserved). We glimpse rare moments of frailty when Quinn pushes Rachel away. Their frequent separations are thankfully (for us) short lived. Rachel’s personal life is so dysfunctional, her only constant is her work. The themes woven into this workplace dramedy include, friendship, ageism, racism, feminism, romance, all with tons of mind boggling physcological manipulation.

My daughter and I can’t get enough of UnREAL. Thankfully, while binge-watching earlier episodes, I remembered to set the PVR for its return. So now we have added UnREAL, season 3 to our weekly TV watch. Waiting a week between episodes after watching the first 20 in such a short time is a struggle but we are managing. If you like dark TV dramedies with women at the helm, this show is worth a look.

 

Killjoys: a review

 

I don’t consider myself a space opera fan. Unlike 1/2 my family, I have no affection for Star Wars and Star Trek. I have tried but it just didn’t take. Despite this character flaw, I do find myself looking back on Firefly and the rebooted version of Battlestar Galactica (BsG) with longing. These 2 shows were set in space but heavily character driven with some philosophical depth and terrific action. Of course Firefly also had some memorably witty dialogue. Those shows have been off the air for so long and nothing has quite filled the void they left. However, Killjoys comes pretty close.

 

 

Killjoys is a space opera centred around a team of bounty hunters (aka Killjoys), Jaqobi brothers, Johnny (Aaron Ashmore) and D’avin (Luke Macfarlane) and their fearless leader Dutch (Hannah John-Kamen), . It is an original Syfy production created by Michelle Loretta. 3 seasons have aired (10 43 min episodes in each) and it has just been given a 2 season renewal.

This show is not as philosophical as BsG and doesn’t’t pretend to be. It is a fun action romp in space with a good balance of season long plot threads that are woven with episodes that stand as individual chapters. There is good character development, fun banter, kick-ass action and techy-nerd jargon that almost makes sense. As the series goes along we watch the killjoys expand their quest beyond simple warrants in order to fight political corruption that threatens their survival. Thankfully, the overall plot isn’t too complicated to follow.

This show films in Canada and the acting and writing are top notch. At times it feels like a Being Erica reunion. Many familiar faces from that beloved show have supporting roles. I especially enjoy the diversity in casting. And I simply love Dutch as an intelligent bad-ass in chic yet sensible footwear. Throw in some dysfunctional family/sibling rivalry between the Jaqobi brothers and I am all in.

So if you are looking for a fun space romp with some witty banter and good action, you may want to check this out.

 

 

 

 

 

GLOW: a review

Wow, over the course of 2 days, I binge-watched this Netflix original series (10 episodes, 30 min each) with my youngest daughter. It has been on my radar ever since it was featured on one of my favourite podcasts, NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour.

My daughter was bored, we were home alone together and she was willing to learn how to make home-made pizza with me but wanted to watch something while we flattened dough, chopped veggies and laid out toppings. I swear we would starve if we didn’t have a TV in the kitchen. So I suggested GLOW and she was game.

GLOW is a period (1980’s) drama with a healthy dose of wry humour about the formation of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. I should preface this review by saying that I have never actually watched wrestling, but have close friends that have (still do). In fact we don’t really watch sports in my house. Occasionally a big important game (Olympics, NHL or MLB playoffs) will grab my husband’s attention. This show’s strength lies in its ensemble of women who are figuring out their lives. Some of the struggles depicted involve their relationships with men but many of the best moments are when the women are helping with each other’s issues and forming their friendships. Each of the women are part of GLOW for different reasons. Season 1 is rather like an origin setup. Unfortunately, the short season means that some characters are better served than others. The ending begs for a follow-up season.

I won’t give away any spoilers for this character driven show. The main conflict of the first season deals with 2 ex-friends, both actors who are trying to grab a foothold on their stalled careers. Alison Brie (loved her as Trudy in Mad Men) plays Ruth (aka Koya the Destroyer) and Betty Gilpin plays Debbie (aka Liberty Bell). They are the most developed characters and we watch them struggle and grow throughout Season 1. This show has a pretty diverse cast of women, some whose life’s struggles we are also privy to.

I should mention that Marc Maron also stars as a down on his luck B-movie director. He is tasked with bringing GLOW to the small screen, with the spotty financial backing of Chris Lowell (Piz from my beloved Veronica Mars) as his man-child producer. I should also mention that I am not a Marc Maron fan either; I tried listening to his podcast a few times but it was not for me. But credit to him, he was just perfect for this sleazy role.

My daughter and I really were pleasantly surprised with the surprising developments of this show and its handling of sensitive subjects. We are hoping for a season 2. So if you are looking for a quick TV fix, love the 80’s (the hair, the makeup the fashion, and especially the MUSIC), crave a realistic depiction of complex female characters, you don’t have to be a wrestling fan to enjoy GLOW. It is worth a look.

13 Reasons Why: a review

 

A number of people have been asking me about this show so I thought I would blog about it. I watched this show with my youngest daughter (13 years old) when she expressed interest in it. Her interest was stimulated by the kids at school buzzing about it. I probably would not have started watching it otherwise, as there is so much else on my viewing radar (an almost complete list of shows can be found below). My eldest had no interest in the show at all.

 

13 Reasons Why is based on a young adult novel of the same title by Jay Asher. It centres around the life of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) who has just killed herself. She left behind 13 audio tapes for her friends and acquaintances to listen to, in an attempt to be finally understood by those who failed to help her. There are voice over narratives and flashbacks interwoven with the present day depiction of a community devastated by the loss of this girl. We spend much of the time with Hannah’s friend Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette) as he listens to the tapes and tries to figure out what he could have done differently. This show is a realistic depiction of many aspects of teen angst.  For this I applaud it. This is a far cry from the teen glamour soaps that that flood us (Pretty Little Liars, etc.). It is also quite stark in its depiction of physical and sexual violence as well as suicide.

The acting was convincing by the young cast. The dialogue was pretty realist as well. However, the suspense structure for dramatic effect seemed contrived at times. This show strained to fill 13 episodes (45 min each). I wanted to understand Hannah’s pain in the context of her extreme action but struggled to do so for much of the 1st season. My daughter had a hard time understanding her too. A somewhat better understanding was left to the end. Much of the earlier events seemed like ordinary teen stuff that she was emotionally ill-equipped to handle. That Hannah could not go to her parents for help was very difficult for me to watch. Her parents were depicted as loving and supportive in flashback scenes. Their devastation after her death brought me to tears. This show had little if any discussion about the mental health aspects of Hannah’s troubles. I found that problematic. It also seemed to simplify and externalize much of the responsibility of what is a very complex and very personal problem. Hannah’s isolation was probably realistic. Many kids live inside their own heads and do not know how to clearly ask for help. Their struggles can seem overwhelming in the echo chamber of their minds. Suicide is often described as an impulsive and desperate act, but as depicted in this show, it is usually associated with depression. I hope Season 2 will delve into this a bit more.

This is a Netflix original series that I admire but would have a hard time broadly recommending as must see TV. I think if you are a parent who is interested in pop culture and you want to know what kids are watching, it is worth a look. If your child is watching it, then I think you should definitely watch it too and discuss the themes which include financial struggles, social class, social media shaming, under age drinking, rape culture, friendship, crushes and sexual identity. This show has been renewed for a 2nd season. I will probably only watch it if my daughter wants to. I am grateful for the opportunity to have watched season 1 with her.

Curious about what else I have been watching? The list below is shocking.

The Americans ___ Archer ___ Better Call Saul ___ Black Sails ___ Call the Midwife ___ Catastrophe ___ Crashing (UK) ___ Crazy Ex-Girlfriend ___ The Crown  ___ Dr. Who ___ The Fall ___ Fargo ___ Fleabag ___ Girls ___ Glitch ___ Grantchester ___ Happy Valley ___ Humans ___ iZombie ___ Jane the Virgin ___ Jessica Jones ___ Killjoys ___ Last Tango in Halifax ___ Lovesick ___ The Magicians ___ Master of None ___ Mercy Street ___ Orange is the New Black ___ Orphan Black ___ Please Like Me ___ Poldark ___ Preacher ___ Scott and Bailey ___ Sense8 ___ Silicon Valley ___ Taboo ___ This is Us ___ Veep ___ Victoria

Anne: Prestige TV meets a Canadian Icon

Anne

 

I just finished watching the last episode of Anne on CBC television and I could not wait to blog about it.

Full disclosure first, as a Canadian and Anne of Green Gables fan, I am very biased. I have reread the entire series of Anne books (all 8 novels) countless times since middle school. Additionally, I have read many of author L.M. Montgomery’s other works of fiction. I loved Megan Follow’s performance in the TV adaptions of the first few novels; so much so, that I haven’t had the desire to watch the most recent Anne of Green Gables TV movie starring Ella Ballentine and Martin Sheen, despite owning a copy. By happenstance, in 2008, my family was visiting Prince Edward Island during the 100th Anniversary celebration of the novel’s publication. We found ourselves immersed in this cultural icon at the Avonlea Village and were delighted with Anne of Green Gables, The Musical at the Charlottetown Festival.

So when I found out there was to be another TV adaptation, a short series of 7 episodes, I feared anticipointment. Then I learned that Moira Walley-Beckett, the Canadian born, Emmy award-winning writer (for Breaking Bad) was in charge; I was intrigued.

So yes, I am very, very biased, and glad to say I loved this new TV series. I was hooked at the opening credit sequence. Poignantly selected Tragically Hip song “Ahead by a Century” accompanies beautiful images of the beloved heroine of this underdog tale. For those unfamiliar with her story, the setting is turn of the previous century. Anne is an 11 year old orphan who is adopted by the Cuthberts, an elderly brother and sister who live on a farm in fictional small town Avonlea, Prince Edward Island. Anne is a spirited, intelligent, imaginative girl who desperately wants to be loved and accepted.

Amybeth McNulty is perfectly cast; she embodies Anne’s earnestness and awkwardness like no other. Anne is an underdog, coming-of-age story that touches on themes of community, love, friendship, bullying, social privilege and financial hardship. In addition to Anne’s casting,  Geraldine James and R.H. Thomson inhabit the roles of Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert exquisitely. The period sets and costumes are wonderful.

The original novels were rather innocent with just a hint of darkness. Sadly, I have yet to persuade my daughters to read them. However, I hope that the dark realism that is dialled up (not to 11, rather a 7) in this TV adaptation will appeal to a broad audience. I hope Netflix will continue to support it; especially if it finds new young fans in addition to those of us who are young at heart and fond the previous screen adaptations.

The first season (7, 1 hour episodes) loosely follows the first part of the novel and ends on a cliff-hanger. I watched newly adopted Anne adjust to her role in the Cuthbert family and got flashes of her pitiful life before the Avonlea arrival. Some of the plots are directly from the book; whereas others are what I would like to call “new chapters.” I found these embellishments fresh and compatible with the original spirit. A bit more darkness is not incompatible with Anne’s story; especially now that new biographical information is available about author L.M. Montgomery life’s struggles.

If you are a fan of Anne of Green Gables, the novel, this is TV series is definitely worth a look. I am curious to know what others think of it.

For now i must wait and hope for more new chapters. Perhaps it is time again to dust off my novels for another reread.

For fans of the series who want to know more about the cultural impact of Anne of Green Gables, especially on an international scale, here is a link to an essay by Margaret Atwood. It taught me why the Japanese love this fictional character so much and continue to visit Prince Edward Island because of her.

Black Sails: a fond Farewell

teaser_poster_for_black_sails

It has been over a year since I blogged about Black Sails HERE, shortly after binging the first 2 seasons. I am now facing the final episodes of the fourth and final season and I am sad to say goodbye. Many of the things I wrote about in my original post have remained solid throughout this underrated series and now that it is wrapping up I just want to give it a boost.

 

This show is beautifully filmed and exquisitely plotted. There is a wonderful balance of action, drama, humour and romance. I am constantly guessing as to which way things are headed. The characters’ development is nuanced and the producers are brutal when it comes to killing them off.

Binge watching this show is the best way to do it. The first 1/2 of season 1 was a bit slow but the payoff is so very much worth it. Waiting week to week for the final 1/2 dozen or so episodes is excruciating, but I will manage. In the meantime, I urge you to give it a try if you like a dark, epic, historical under-dog tale brimming with action and served with sly humour.

Lovesick: a review

lovesick-netflix

I am in the process of watching this show on Netflix for the 3rd time. That is how I measure comedy greatness, primarily in repeat watch appeal. To be fair, the 1st time I watched it while I was doing solo chores around the house, mostly cooking, cleaning, fixing stuff.  Availability on Netflix renders it highly portable. I know I was missing nuanced performances but I thought a 2nd watch with my husband would remedy that. We were looking for something to watch together that would make us laugh. This 3rd time is with my kids, who wondered what their parents thought was so funny! I flit in and out while my daughters are watching but I still find myself swept up in the zany lives of the 3 main characters.

Lovesick (previous title for Season 1 was Scrotal Recall) kept popping up as a recommendation on Netflix. But frankly, the original title put me off because it sounded like bad porn. I know, I know, as someone who will defend TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer until the end of time, I will admit to a bit of judgy irony on my part. When I saw this show recommended by mainstream critics, I thought I would give it a try.

So glad I did, when I did. The 1st season aired 6 episodes (24 min each) back in 2014 and just recently released the 2nd! 14 hilariously sweet episodes to binge watch is a glorious treat. To have waited for season 2 would have been excruciating.

This romantic comedy jumps somewhat randomly through time (in a clever way that is not at all confusing) and deals with 3 best friends (Dylan, Evie and Luke). Dylan’s recent diagnosis of Chlamydia and subsequent need to inform his previous partners serves as a novel conduit into the colourful world of these 20 something characters. This is a show for an older audience, no doubt (language, sexuality). It is kind and yet very incisive. It stars Johnny Flynn as Dylan (frustrated romantic), Daniel Ings as Luke (superficial player) and Antonia Thomas (Alisha from my beloved Misfits) as no-nonsense Evie. Watching them figure out lives, careers and relationships is so much fun. The show’s humour is not only in its dialogue but its physicality as well.

If you like romance, British comedies and do not mind non-linear story-telling, this is a show to check out.

A Couple of TV Comedies by Phoebe Waller-Bridge

It has been a while since I have blogged. Summer was a busy time, but I am back with lots to write about. I watched a number of enjoyable TV shows. Here is the first lot that I wanted to share. Both are comedies written by a talented woman whose work is new to me. If you have a dark but quirky sense of humour, like short British series and are not offended by swearing or nudity, you might want to check these shows out. Warning, the trailers are NSFW.

crashing-s01-home-slide

Crashing

This UK comedy is available on Netflix in Canada. 6 episodes, each less than ½ hour. It is just perfect for binge-watching in one evening after a long work week has left one good for nothing else (Not that THAT ever happens). OMG, what a way to lift my mood, this show had me laughing out loud like a fool. It is written by and stars Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whom I now just absolutely adore! I had seen her previously as a supporting character in Broadchurch’s disappointing 2nd season and she made no impression at the time. She is a remarkable comedy writer and a tremendous actor. Crashing is an ensemble comedy set in a decommissioned hospital. The inhabitants are property guardians, which is a real thing that I had never heard of before. In an attempt to prevent squatters, the property guardians are lured, with low rent, to live in and maintain the abandoned hospital. This brings together a colourful group of characters and hilarity ensues. This show is about being a young adult, figuring out your life’s direction and who you want to share it with. To say more would spoil the fun. I enjoyed it so much I watched it again with my husband (over 2 evenings this time) and was thrilled to hear his belly laughs. This show is a rapid-fire of one-line zingers and exquisite physical comedy. The supporting cast is a delightful mix of actors. Some of them are familiar to me. What a treat it was to see them again (Jonathan Bailey Olly from Broadchurch and Damien Molony, Vampire Hal from Being Human -UK).

********************

fleabag

Fleabag

Unfortunately this comedy is not readily available in Canada, yet. It is available in the USA on Amazon’s streaming service. I managed to catch it in my travels and was blown away. This is the 2nd TV series launched in 2016 that is written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Based on her award winning play, this TV show is a character study that is much darker than Crashing. It is funny, charming and an exquisite showcase for this woman’s remarkable talent. Her facial expressions alone flash a series of emotions so quickly, I am almost afraid to blink. Her writing is as brilliant as her physical screen presence. Fleabag is the nickname of the main character, who is a millennial struggling to find her way in the world after a (mini-spoiler alert) tragedy. This show deals with dysfunctional families, sisters, feminism, human frailty, friendship, loss and love. The main character breaks the forth wall throughout the show, a risky move that really works. Another risk is the interjection of poignant flashbacks. Phoebe Waller-Bridge weaves a haunting portrayal of a young woman’s life. That it is also a comedy is a genuine marvel. Her supporting cast is a delight. Olivia Colman, playing Fleabag’s father’s wife, is a treat to see in a role diverging from her serious ones (Broadchurch, The Night Manager). I hope it comes to Canadian Netflix soon. Because at 6 episodes, each less than ½ hour, it is a perfect show to binge-watch. Another enjoyable evening was spent unwinding with Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Thanks go to NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast for introducing me to this show (which also led me to find Crashing) and a wonderful young talent.

Grantchester: a Review

grantchester1920x1080

 

I just finished binge watching a charming TV period drama called Grantchester. The second series debut was being promoted on PBS as part of their Masterpiece Mysteries series and my familiarity with the 2 excellent lead actors had me take notice. So I downloaded the first series (6 episodes) from iTunes and enjoyed it over the Easter long weekend in anticipation of the debut of season 2.

This is a murder mystery/buddy cop drama set in 1953, based on books written by James Runcie. James Norton plays Sidney Chambers, a vicar in Grantchester, who befriends Inspector Geordie Keating (Robson Green). Each episode has them solve a murder case with a few threads of subplot (usually involving their personal lives) that carry through to the end of each season. This role is a radical departure from Norton’s portrayal of sociopathic thug Tommy Lee Royce on Happy Valley (another excellent British cop drama, available on Netflix that I highly recommend). Sidney Chambers is struggling to be a good man and leader of his community. Because he remains haunted by his pre-ordination WWII experiences, one gets a sense that his chosen profession serves to heal his soul in addition to his parishioners’.

 

 

Anyone who knows me well may be surprised that I would recommend a show that features an Anglican priest. This show is not preachy and it is super fun. It is exquisitely filmed in the English country side. It weaves elements of social change into the background of well crafted murders of the week. There is romance in addition to good mysteries with reasonable twists. Of course one must suspend one’s disbelief at the number of violent deaths that occur in such a small place. And I try not to think too hard at how a vicar has so much time for police business, not to mention that the police actually encourage it. Nevertheless, everything else about this show rings true. It is not afraid of tackling topics such as racism, abortion, death penalty, homosexuality (illegal in the UK until the late 60’s) and class structure. There is a sweet earnestness to this program with a gentle injection of humour. The characters are very well developed and distinct. The supporting cast is amazing, especially housekeeper Mrs. Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones) and closeted curate Leonard Finch (Al Weaver). If you are a fan of classic whodunits, English countryside, period drama, thematic depth and well drawn characters, this show just might do it for you.

 

Previous Older Entries

Blog Stats

  • 12,035 hits