Detectorists: a review

I just finished binge watching this quiet, funny British TV show and couldn’t wait to share my thoughts. It is available on Netflix; with 2 seasons, a total of 13 1/2hour episodes, the series flew by and came to a really fine conclusion. A recently announced 3rd season is in the works, and I am thrilled. I decided to check it out on the recommendation of Judge John Hodgman, a comedian whose podcast I follow.

This show is written and directed by Mackenzie Crook. He is best known for his role as Gareth in the U.K. version of The Office and for his wandering eye (literally) in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series. He and Toby Jones star as a couple of buddies who share a passion for “treasure hunting” in the fields of rural England. This eccentric hobby is handled with kindness, humour and respect. It is quite moving at times; I found myself carried away with the characters’ enthusiasm. With little by way of introduction, this show drops the viewer into the fictional town of Danebury, North Essex. Here we follow Andy (Crook) and Lance (Jones) as they search for gold and navigate their relationships with significant others, rival detectorists and each other.

Detectorists is perhaps not as laugh out loud funny as other comedies I watch. However it didn’t take but a few episodes for these 2 vulnerable nerds to worm their way into my heart. This show might appeal to anyone who enjoys British comedies without laugh tracks. It would be specifically endearing to anyone who has a niche interest or an obsessive hobby. The running gags never get tired. The domestic situations ring true and are very relatable. There is conflict yet kindness and warmth in this gentle comedy. As an added bonus, season 1 episode 3 has a cameo by Johnny Flynn, the star of another Netflix show I recently blogged about, Lovesick. He performs the show’s theme song during open mic night at the local pub.

I was delighted to learn this show won a BAFTA award for best TV comedy writing. It is well deserved. The recently announced 3rd season is due toward the end of the year. This is 2 years after the 2nd season ended. I love that about British TV shows. They are not restricted to a time frame or an episode count. All in good time. If you are looking for a sweet British comedy with a reasonable number of episodes and a tidy conclusion, you may want to check out Detectorists. And if it leaves you wanting more, then you are in luck.

The Wire: an Overdue Review

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The Wire is an HBO TV show that can be found on most top 10 TV show lists published in the last 10 years. Until recently it was a serious gap in my pop culture knowledge. Now I know why it is always there on those lists, taunting me, daring me to take the plunge. I finally did; I watched all 5 seasons on DVD over a few weeks.

 

 

And it took some patience with the first 4 episodes, but I am glad I stuck with it. It is an excellent show, but clearly not for everyone. The authentic street language, for one, had me watching with subtitles. That might be a deal breaker for some. How to sell this to a viewer? I am not sure, but it has a big fan in President Obama, if that is enough of a recommendation.

 

 

The Wire is a brutal, cynical, vérité depiction of life in inner city Baltimore. The show throws the viewer into this world head first. Over the course of 5 short seasons (10 to 13, 1 hour episodes) one encounters the shenanigans of gangsters, cops, dock workers, teachers, reporters, lawyers and politicians. This show reveals the horrors associated with growing up in poverty, youth trapped in tangled webs of rigged systems (justice, education, social). My heart breaks as I watch children surrounded by drug-addiction, who are destined to repeat this life cycle because it is the only one they know. This show is deft at exposing the flawed systems, which are set up to fail, by any number of problems. Be they conflicts of interest in the wake of short election cycles or simply a lack of resources. And yet this show is beautifully written, with heart and humour. It strength also lies in a diverse array of characters, on both sides of the law, many whom one can’t help care about. Even the criminals, no spoilers here, but Omar Little (iconically portrayed by Michael Kenneth Williams) remains a fan favourite.

 

 

Does it make my top 10? I don’t know. That is a list that is always in flux, besides, I usually stop ranking after my top 2 (Currently Breaking Bad #1 and Spartacus #2). It can be a bit preachy at times and the season to season introduction of new characters and settings makes some storylines less compelling than others, leading me to be a bit impatient at times. I guess I prefer more personal stories with smaller casts a bit more than epic tales of power struggles and social commentary (also the reason why I stopped watching Game of Thrones). So where does it fit in my hierarchy of great things to watch? These are the things that I consider when arriving at an answer. Would I watch The Wire again? Probably, but not very soon. Did I watch it with my undivided attention at all times? Alas, no. Will I bug my husband to watch it too? Nope, still trying to get him to watch Breaking Bad with me. But I am glad I watched The Wire. It showcased the early work of actors who have gone on to bigger things, most notably Idris Elba and Michael B. Jordan. I appreciate it as a unique TV experience and think that creator David Simon had a remarkable vision and was a wonderful voice for the city of Baltimore.

Grantchester: a Review

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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.

 

Black Sails: a Review of the 1st 2 Seasons

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Ever since Spartacus wrapped its epic tale in the spring of 2013, I have been looking for a show to fill the void. What void you ask? Was it the over-the-top adult-oriented premium-cable sex and violence that I missed? No, even I would admit that Spartacus had too much of both at times. I was looking for a serialized historical drama populated by beautiful people, which had a compelling story I hope would keep me guessing. I had tried Vikings but I could not relate to any of the characters. So when I heard that Starz was promoting a new pirate themed TV show called Black Sails and it starred Toby Stephens (my favourite Mr. Rochester from any Jane Eyre Adaptation) I was intrigued. Unfortunately, my cable package didn’t carry it and I waited for the DVD releases. I have just binge-watched the first 2 seasons (8+10 episodes) and I am hooked. Season 3 returns in the US and Canada on January 23, 2016.

 

Black Sails is set primarily in and around Nassau, New Providence Island in the Bahamas in the early 1700’s. The city is overrun by pirates and corrupt business people trying to remain a step ahead of British rule. Black Sails combines fictional pirates (John Silver, Billy Bones and Captain Flint from R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island) with historical figures (Anne Bonny, Jack Rackham, Charles Vane) to create a labyrinthine tale of plotting and plundering. It is somewhat a prequel to the happenings in Treasure Island. It touches many themes such as commerce, sovereignty, power, idealism, pragmatism, stoicism, politics, leadership, hierarchy, corruption, manipulation, loyalty, sexuality (including LGBT portrayals) and gender roles. Season 1 is primarily concerned with local infighting which serves as a backdrop for the main quest, the hunt for a Spanish ship transporting gold.

This show has a terrific ensemble, including Toby Stephens as Captain Flint, Luke Arnold as a young 2-legged John Silver and Hannah New as Eleanor Guthrie, supplier (and chief fence) of the colony. I especially enjoy the chemistry between co-conspirators Toby Schmitz as Rackham, Clara Paget as Anne Bonny and Jessica Parker Kennedy as local madame, Max. The characters are complex and distinctly developed over the course of 18 episodes. We learn more about the backstory of some of the characters, specifically Captain Flint and his companion Mrs Barlow, in Season 2, via flash back and well-crafted expository dialogue.

 

The South African coast is a sumptuous double for the West Indies. And I guess this is as good a time as any to confess that I do not enjoy sailing; my husband and 2 daughters have gone on 2 sailing vacations without me in the Caribbean. Also I know absolutely nothing about the mechanics of it. Despite this confession, I found the scenes onboard the ships to be spectacular, especially during battles and storms. There are some awesomely gruesome fights done in a realistic style, rather than Spartacus’ over-the-top blood-fests. I had to turn the sound down and avert my eyes on a few occasions.

I am a sucker for underdogs and this show is busting with them. I guess I enjoy Black Sails for the same reasons I love film noir. Although most of the characters exist on the fringes and do horrible things; these egregious acts are often a means to ensure survival in an unjust world. I love when a great scheme is underway, hits a snag and forces clever characters to improvise. Black Sails reminds me of both Spartacus and Deadwood; it is almost as grubby yet sadly, not nearly as poetic. There is a sprinkling of wry dark humour, often delivered by either John Silver or Jack Rackham. Thankfully there is nothing as goofy as Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow (a little of that went a long way; I could not watch beyond the 2nd instalment of that franchise).

I am not sure I can wait another year for season 3 to be released on DVD.

 

If you like pirates, buff beautiful actors, twisty plots full of double and triple crosses, good fights and beautiful scenery, this might be one to check out. The first episode can be seen embedded below.

Being Erica: a Review

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I just finished binge re-watching Being Erica on DVD. Being Erica is an unabashedly Canadian TV show that aired on CBC from 2009 – 2011. It had 4 short seasons with a total of 49 episodes (45 min each). I loved it when I first watched, as it aired weekly all those years ago and I loved it even more after revisiting it.

Being Erica is an awesome combination of romance, comedy, drama and fantasy. Erica Strange (enchantingly played by Erin Karpluk) is a 32 year old woman whose life is not what she hoped it would be. Then she meets Dr. Tom (Michael Riley in a scene stealing portrayal). Dr Tom gives her an offer she cannot refuse, the opportunity to travel back in time to relive her regrets in an attempt to learn from her mistakes.

 

Erica is very flawed, but very relatable. Watching her stumble through her questionable life choices is not only very entertaining but somewhat humbling as I am reminded of some of my own. Who wouldn’t want a Dr. Tom to guide us, with his many fun quotes (which a great blogger compiled here Season 1, Season 2, Season 3, Season 4)? This show is aspirational but not preachy. It makes no secret of its Toronto setting, which I find refreshing. It does not dwell at all on the mechanics of time travel, which I appreciate. It is not a perfect show; however, the flaws (egregious product placement, characters with annoying affectations) are easily forgotten when considering its strengths. It has a great ensemble cast, surprisingly good character development, a satisfying conclusion and it knew when to quit.

If you are looking for something fun and Canadian, you may want to check this show out. It is available on Canadian Netflix or you can watch the 1st episode online here

The Americans: a review

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Wow. I just finished watching the first 2 seasons of this cold war drama. I had bought the first season when it was released on DVD, strictly based on the positive buzz that I was hearing and  just in time to PVR the second season as it aired.

This show is set in the 80’s and is based on a real sleeper cell of Russian spies based in the USA, dubbed the Illegals Program. As a gen-Xer, I found this to be a remarkable trip down a nostalgic path. This show stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as a married couple, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, who live in the greater Washington D.C. area and pose as owners of a travel agency. No one would suspect they are really illegals. To complicate their lives, their newest neighbour, Stan (Noah Emmerich) is an FBI counter-intelligence agent. This is pure drama, with very little humour but it makes up for it with richly drawn main characters and deeply relatable struggles in their personal and professional lives.

Throughout the 2 seasons (13 episodes each) I followed parallels between Philip and Elizabeth’s assignments and Stan’s investigations. These plots were intricately woven with subplots involving their fragile personal lives.  As a Canadian, I felt no discomfort at sympathizing with the Jennings’s. I found their emotional struggles and compartmentalized lives fascinating. I enjoyed watching as they balanced marriage and parenting with soul-crushing professional set-backs. To make things worse, they have very few emotional supports. This is not your typical arranged marriage.

Boy, spy shows have come a long way from the days of Alias (I was a huge fan). Sydney Bristow rarely had to compromise herself the way the Jennings do. Both Philip and Elizabeth are repeatedly involved in honey-traps and neither shy away from dealing with innocents who just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. How refreshingly realistic.

Keri Russell (I was never a Felicity fan) is fantastic as Elizabeth Jennings; cold and steely, butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. You can see her shift gears and soften when dealing with her children, as if she must do it consciously. Matthew Rhys is excellent as Philip who is clearly the more emotionally demonstrative of the pair. I appreciate his numerous mission specific aliases (I especially like it when he plays the role of Clark) and the talent it requires on Matthew Rhys’ part to pull it off. Special mention goes out to Noah Emmerich as Stan, a man who has just returned from a deep under cover FBI assignment. He seems to flail about as he tries to assimilate into the “real world”.

This show is well written. It allows itself to unfold with great tension and respects me as the viewer enough to let me figure things out. I was spared long expository speeches. The plots move at a quick pace and inject real historical events here and there. The soundtrack is amazing with well chosen hits from the period. I especially enjoyed the use of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk in the pilot and Golden Earring’s Twilight Zone in the Season 2 finale. The supporting cast is stellar, featuring Richard Thomas, Margo Martindale and Lee Tergesen.

If you like the idea of a family drama dovetailing with a spy caper, this show is worth a look. I am really looking forward to the next season.

Freaks and Geeks: a review

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This short-lived TV show that straddled the turn of the century (1999-2000 ) had been on my radar for a while. When I recently saw that it was available on Netflix, I made a point of giving it a try. Before long, I had binged-watched all 18 episodes of this delightful coming of age exploration of suburban high school life set in the 80’s.

 

 

Wow, as someone who was a nerd in high school during the 80’s, this show took me back – in a good way. The series showcased the Weir siblings, Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and Sam (John Francis Dailey), as they struggled with the usual teen angst: cliques, bullying, relationships with friends and crushes, academic pursuits, parents, socio-economic status. You name it, it has been done before, but rarely this well. It is a drama with comedic undertones. Written and Produced by Judd Apatow and Paul Feig, Freaks and Geeks featured a stunning before-they-were-famous cast that included James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and Busy Philipps.

 

This show wasn’t about beautiful kids with fabulous lives (a la Beverly Hills 90210), just regular high schoolers. It had a thread of kindness and realism. The acting was pretty good and it was really fun to watch the early work of actors, writers, directors and producers who continue to thrive. Despite it being only 18 episodes long, it managed to shine a spotlight on a great ensemble. Many episodes ended without a tidy or moralistic conclusion and that made the show seem more realistic somehow.

If you like coming of age TV, this show is a must see.

 

Brideshead Revisted (1981): a review

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I just finished watching Brideshead Revisited, the TV miniseries. Yes, all 659 minutes of it; I watched it all. I borrowed the DVD’s from a dear friend who often spoke of it fondly. His enthusiasm made me curious about it. I remembered it being buzzed about over 30 years ago. I was a bit too young in 1981 for it to capture my attention. Just as well, this was not made for me.

I love period dramas with their lush countrysides, exquisitely furnished stately homes. gorgeous costumes, old fashioned language and social conventions. However, these thing alone do not make compelling television. It was a struggle (I failed) to give this production my undivided attention for all 11 episodes.

For the uninitiated, Brideshead Revisited was told in flashback. Charles Ryder (Jeremy Irons) was a British soldier during WW2 who found himself in the English countryside with his regimen as they  set up camp in a stately castle. The estate was the titular Brideshead, a familiar place to Charles, as it was the home of his Oxford mate Sebastian Flyte and his doomed family. From that point, Charles narrated the story  which started 20 years earlier, of  his days at Oxford, his history with Sebastian and the Flyte family and their troubled relationships with each other and their Catholic faith. Charles and the Flytes became estranged and Charles got a life (or so we are told). Then 10 years later, Charles encountered Sebastian’s sister Julia and again became embroiled in the Flyte family’s affairs.

I found some aspects of the miniseries of interest. I was fascinated by the portrayal of Charles and Sebastian’s relationship. It was heavily implied that they were more than just friends; the use of the word love, I believe was deliberate. I refuse to get into a debate about this opinion. Suffice it to say that it is not explicitly stated. However the conflict between Sebastian’s sexuality and religion was a logical explanation for his character’s deteriorating behaviour. Since homosexuality was illegal at the time the source novel was written and the author, Evelyn Waugh was reported to have had sexual relationships with both men and women,  I believe that implied (rather than explicit) major themes of homosexuality and bisexuality were not outside the realm of possibility. Charles subsequent marriage to Cecilia and his relationship with Julia suggested that he was bisexual.

The cast was top notch. Beyond Jeremy Irons’ subtle performance, there were great performances by Anthony Andrews as Sebastian and cameos by veterans Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. The filming locations were lovely, taking us from the English countryside to Italy over to Malta (doubling for Morocco).

Unfortunately, those interesting themes, great performances and exotic locales did not add up to compelling TV. The use of narration was so heavy handed, I might as well have been reading a book. For such a long miniseries, not much of interest happens. I watched some rich people live pretty boring lives, struggle with their faith and it was hard for me to care. The main characters were neither likeable, relatable, clever nor interesting. The narrative leapt through time rendering a perfunctory air to what was depicted on screen. Any character development was glossed over or worse narrated to me as fact rather than allowing it to evolve organically on screen. The story was quite dour at times with infrequent moments of levity (Charles’ father played by John Gielgud, Anthony Blanche played by Nickolas Grace provided the welcome rare interludes).

I can handle slow story telling (Mad Men diehard fan here), but this really dragged and there was very little to hold my interest. I soon found myself  chopping vegetables for dinner, cleaning the blinds and doing other mindless chores as I watched.

I had not read the book, but my friend assured me that this miniseries was a very faithful adaptation. I guess I will never read the book.

 

 

Veronica Mars: Mixed Feelings from a Kickstarter Backer and a Diehard Fan

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I saw the Veronica Mars Movie in the theatre with a good friend and our pre-teen daughters last Sunday.  As a previous post would prove, I am a huge fan of the TV series. I was happy to throw a nominal sum at the Kickstarter project in order to score some neat rewards and to see what would happen. I was excited to attend this gathering of fans and was pleasantly surprised to be seated in a theatre that was more than half-full. But I couldn’t help reading reviews beforehand, which were mixed at best. So my expectations were tempered and I am glad they were.

Was this Kickstarter film a success? Depends who you ask. The box-office numbers revealed that fans came out in pretty decent numbers considering it was a limited release and available as a download. Creator, Rob Thomas was pretty open that he was motivated to give fans what they want.

There lies the problem. How can he possibly know what fans want? We are an eclectic bunch. Fundamentally I wanted a solid movie that I could watch with a friend who was completely uninitiated to the TV show. Joss Whedon managed to do it when he revitalized the characters from prematurely cancelled TV series Firefly with the film Serenity, so I hoped it would be possible with this project. Sadly, this film was an adequate extended made for TV reunion episode (thankfully not as bad as Rescue from Gilligan’s Island) that was not for the uninitiated.

Did I have fun watching it? Yes!! It was awesome to spend time with familiar faces and characters in a room full of fans. Was the story engaging? Kinda. Did the characters ring true? Whose to say? The witty banter was there so, YAY! Veronica was no longer a teenager in this film and yet she fell into some patterns of behaviour that no longer earned a pass. I don’t want to spoil any plot points. Most of the action on screen seemed to serve the plot more than the characters. Some relationships where thrown under  the bus, others were catapulted to new levels that didn’t seem earned and others were virtually ignored.

Much has been said about this film from other more eloquent fans and these links echo many of my sentiments.

Warning, these links have spoilers.

Linda Holmes NPR Monkey See Blog on Veronica Mars

James Poniewozik Time on Veronica Mars Movie

Todd VanDerWerff AV Club on Veronica Mars Movie

Meghan Lewit AV Club

You know what I really wished for? That Veronica Mars, the TV series, didn’t struggle in the ratings and was given the freedom to continue to develop its characters and mysteries over a 4 to 5 year period. It would have been fun to see Veronica go from feisty teenager to capable young woman and thenI could have happily said good bye. TV series tend to run their course after a while.

It didn’t happen and no amount of Kickstarter money could give me what I want. This movie was better than nothing and certainly didn’t tarnish my memories of the show but it made me wistful. Would I ever watch it again? Doubtful, as I would sooner rewatch the TV series over agin. Would I give money to see another instalment? Probably, my kids really enjoyed the movie, as did their newbie friends. We all liked the cool rewards, especially the T-shirts.


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Outrageous Fortune: Guilty Pleasure TV, New Zealand

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Being a pop culture nerd leads me in very weird directions. When I was mourning the end of The Almighty Johnsons, a show I wrote about previously HERE, I thought I would check out the previous works of creators Rachel Lang and James Griffin. That is how I found Outrageous Fortune. When I realised it starred Antony Starr (currently wrapping up a 2nd awesome season on Banshee) in a dual role as twin brothers and Grant Bowler (True Blood) as his hoodlum father, I couldn’t resist! It ran for 107, 45 min episodes over 6 seasons (2005 – 2010) and was available on DVD as an import, so I thought I would take a chance. Before long, I was binge watching it.

Outrageous Fortune was a family dramedy that centred on the West family. The lot of them (Mom, Dad, Grandpa, twin adult sons and 2 teenage daughters) lived on the westside of Auckland, NZ. Their house was a gathering place for many colourful friends and neighbours, most of ill repute. When patriarch Wolf (Grant Bowler) was sent to prison for robbery at the beginning of the series, his wife decided that it was time the family went straight and divested itself of its criminal ways. She hoped that her children home would take after their brother Jethro (Antony Starr), who was just about to pass the bar and begin his professional life as a lawyer. But no such luck. Jethro’s dim but sweet twin brother Van (also Antony Starr) was not keen and sisters Pascalle (age 18) and Loretta (age 15) were too wrapped up in their own delusions of grandeur to take much notice of their well meaning mum, Cheryl (Robyn Malcolm).

Wow, the language and nudity that regular NZ TV gets away with is comparable to premium cable in North America. Definitely NSFW!!!! Not that I mind. This show quickly became a guilty pleasure. This show drew me in with its tale of family dysfunction on the wrong side of the tracks. Thematically, it was reminiscent of Shameless (US), which I am still enjoying.

Of course, after making my overseas purchase, someone uploaded many episodes to you tube. You can check out the pilot below. Warning again, NSFW.

The acting in Outrageous Fortune was really good, special mention going to Antony Starr who really pulled off 2 different characters convincingly.

OF VJ I forgot that he is the lead actor in a current favourite TV show, Banshee. Not since Michael C. Hall jumped from Six Feet Under to Dexter, have I been that impressed.  To add to the fun of this show there were many familiar faces from The Almighty Johnsons (TAJ). Shane Cortese OF HP had a recurring role and he was just as fun here as he was as Loki in TAJ. It was also nice to see Ben Barrington again (Olaf in TAJ) in a small part. The dialogue was funny if somewhat caustic and the character development was pretty good. I really liked the maturation of the sibling relationships and how they came through for one another when least expected. I enjoyed most the plot twists and betrayals that were surpirsing, yet inevitable. Towards the latter seasons, the plots became a bit too soapy for my tastes, but everything else was enough to carry me through to the finale. Ah yes, the finale. Frankly I didn’t care for the direction it went. But by then, I was happy to say good-bye. It was fun for most of its run and I won’t begrudge it a few missteps here and there.

This show was remade as Scroundrels for an American audience in 2010, it lasted for 8 episodes.

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