random review: Santa Clarita Diet [season 1]

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For me, Drew Barrymore‘s presence can always be relied upon to make a dull project bearable. It brings me great glee, then, to see her in something that is not only smile-inducing but is also a Netflix Original – properties that have continued to surprise in their diversity and willingness to take risks.

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31 Days of Hallowe’en, Day 22: Black Mirror; Season 3, Episode 2: Playtest

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With all the horror I’ve consumed lately, a concern has been festering in the back of my mind: what if nothing scares me anymore? A message board post I recently read admitted that the author felt sad that he can’t enjoy horror movies the way he used to, because of this very reason. Maybe, like my recent favourites Don’t Breathe and Train to Busan, I can appreciate the tension those two use that is usually reserved for action movies and thrillers, rather than the lingering dread that the monster might crawl out of the screen and follow you home. Or, with my 2016 favourite The Windmill Massacre, perhaps I can just appreciate the creature’s design, the well-paced story and the creative gore.

I just won’t be scared.

black mirror 2016 season 3 playtest

But now, on the trotting heels of its prophetic Prime-Minister pig-fucking nostalgia, along comes Netflix’s Season 3 of Black Mirror. Hoorah! The show that I’d been forcing everyone under the sun to see finally has a third season on the bingewatching mecca of the interwebz.

Given the length and utter mindfuckedness of past episodes, I’d actually recommend against binging. Each episode follows you around for at least a day or two, and your brain needs time to push it back out. This one, based on Reddit comments, is one that requires just such a moratorium. (For me, it was Episode 3).

“Playtest”, Episode 2, plays with the very idea of what fear is, and how far it can be pushed to commodify it. Wyatt Russell (a curiously watchable genetic mesh of Kurt and Goldie) plays Cooper, a young American backpacker. Low on funds, he  answers an ‘odd job’ ad to beta-test a well-known company’s augmented reality game – which concerns itself with pushing the limits of fear.

In my trademarked quest to avoid spoilers, I can only say that of course it gets more twisted from there. Prepare to be suitably unsettled.

black mirror 2016 season 3 playtest

It actually throws some good bits of tension at you before the inevitable ‘nothing could possi-blye go wrong’ trope’. But from there, it genuinely gets terrifying to the point of downright uncomfortable. I can’t remember the last time I gasped out loud at a screen. This is some fantastic storytelling. The fright in any episode of Black Mirror is the unease around seeing your contemporary surroundings on screen, with just one small element futurised, amplfied, and cloaked in gloom. It’s very possible that these things could happen. And, unlike a surprisingly creative serial killer or unbeatable ghoul, the ‘villains’ in Black Mirror aren’t a single entity – it’s a plausible concept spun out of control in its influence and potential to devastate. And isn’t that just some eye-watering, spine-tingling, stomach-sinking beautiful mindfuckery?

Benedict Cumberbatch playing The Master in Doctor Who’s 50th Anniversary Episode…?

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Fanboys and fangirls would explode in a meta brain-crash.

Scheduling back  several trips to the UK, spaced out equally throughout the year, has helped me put up a good fight against the dribs and drabs of homesickness that often seep into the day. Watching TV is another solution, so I’ve been catching up on all the shows I took for granted while I was still living in the UK, shows that are relatively new and shows that I just miss watching. A lot.

Two of those shows in particular are Sherlock and Doctor Who, the love for the former borne out of the childhood love of all things Sherlock (even this), the latter just because, well, who didn’t grow up watching some incarnation of The Doctor? He’s probably the reason I loved jelly babies so much.

Having read the books, I can see how Benedict Cumberbatch was a great choice physically to play Sherlock:

“In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination. “

– A Study in Scarlet, Chapter 2: The Science of Deduction

So to imagine that someone who I think is perfect for the role of Sherlock playing The Master, might be a bit too much. He’s already ingrained himself in my mind as Sherlock, that to take those negative, sociopathic qualities and turn them into a pure villainous role just takes away the complexity of the character we have become used to him playing.

Exactly as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote him, Sherlock Holmes is tactless, arrogant, manipulative, condescending, even deceitful. Basically, kind of a jerk. But it’s all carefully played and written and directed so that you don’t want him to die at the end of every episode. I just don’t think you can take him and make him The Master because of one Radio Times article that got everyone’s Batman pants wet on Twitter, or because of the convenience of it being in the Moffat family as far as production/casting goes.

During David Tennant’s run, The Master had his own slow introduction, with a gradually-building story arc that took its time playing out. Because of this, I know The Master as John Simm. Cumberbatch is already Sherlock – would it just be too much to have him play The Master as well? Some online prayers are that Cumberbatch will take over Matt Smith’s role and actually be The Doctor as well as Sherlock, just because the former is a kinder, nicer, older version of the latter.

Sure, it would seem like a natural transition (and less furore about the casting this time), but it brings to mind the creepy ubiquitousness of Hugh Jackman when it was rumoured that he was in the running for both Superman and James Bond (pre-Daniel Craig) while already having the roles of Wolverine and (at the time) a potentially successful Van Helsing franchise (how could a movie in which a wooden horse cart explodes from toppling over be such a box-office flop?).

I’m sure, if he did take on the role for the 50th Anniversary episode, it would be played, written and directed very well, with a hint of an incestuous casting in-joke. More of a “special guest star” than a “special guest character”. And then he’ll go back to doing Sherlock and Matt Smith will go back to fighting other villains and the TARDIS will spin on.

And what of John Simm, if Cumberbatch takes the role? Well, I wouldn’t worry about him. I’m sure he’ll pop up somewhere, wherever there’s a twist in the tale…

It’s True: We Are All Exactly Like Characters in Downton Abbey

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I wanted to write a post about something else, but I’ve sort of got sidetracked catching up with this show (from the beginning). Just two days and I’m almost caught up with the current US schedule, but the first episode I ever saw was the Christmas special on Christmas Day. The show devotees at work thought I was winding them up, until they twigged that I had, of course, been in England at the time (where, for once, We aired a show before They did).

Being the watercooler talk of two middle-aged, Edwardian-loving adoranerds, I had to get in on this because they kept using the show to poke a little fun at my accent. Since I hadn’t seen The Fighter and didn’t really remember much about Mystic River (other than grey-tinting a camera lens makes things look gritty and Sean Penn still overacts when he’s not overacting gay or mentally ill), I couldn’t exact a vice-versa, and thought that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Revelling in my Englishness and all the stereotypes it entailed was going to be easier and much more fun with this show infecting everyone, but I had no idea that it was the darling of American television. I knew it had won a ton of awards, but niche shows like Boardwalk Empire (and every other HBO show that basically pumps sex where Michael Bay would insert an exploding car) had done the same, so I was just expecting this to be one of those awesome shows that no-one really watched.

One of my coworkers kept telling me I was definitely Lady Mary, if I had to be one of the characters. I smiled and said I’d watch it and see. But she’s a stubborn, coquettish, vain, spoiled, snobbish brunette who’s pressured by her parents and…oh. Never mind.

Lady Mary

British or not, there’s enough characters to go around for everyone to identify with, so I needn’t make a joke of playing up the Englishness for an American workplace when the show is good enough to watch on its own merit. I respect good storytelling, but more so, well-rounded characters with conflict, motivations, virtues and failings. I could tell that many of the veteran actors had theatre backgrounds and/or were classically-trained (which tends to be the case with even the latest crop of Brit actors today), because, despite the proper, stiff-upper-lip Britishness (either from stoic servitude or stoic nobility), it was necessary to have a group of actors with expressive faces fit for a stage.

The show is expensive, and looks it. Reading that each episode cost just over £1 million to produce, I wasn’t surprised. Reading that the show was created by the same man responsible for Gosford Park and The Importance of Being Earnest, I wasn’t surprised either. Creator Julian Fellowes seems to have a knack for writing about upper-class Edwardian estates and the isolated, mini-cities they become, and, much like a shop owner who’s on-site running the store every day, Fellowes has written every single episode so far. Unfortunately, he’s also responsible for The Tourist. But he’s been in a few Bond films, so we can just blame it on the fact that they didn’t originally get Charlize Theron for the lead.

Like any period drama, it’s easy to fall for the witty dialogue, the gorgeous costumes/sets, the sheer number of characters with which to occupy yourself and the dramatic irony of impending war. Most dramas of this sort tend to opt for the oft-tread territory of WWII (or, in the case of Americans, Vietnam…or their version of WWII for a pick-me-up from what actually happened). Even in school, for my History GCSE, I still didn’t really learn anything about WWI. Tons on WWII and even a big chunk of the curriculum on Vietnam.

I promised I wouldn’t watch ahead (even though the UK has already shown the post-second series Special), but the episodes have been stitched together in this weird Frankenstein way on PBS Masterpiece Theatre, so it’s hard to reference the number of episodes per series (people here think Series 1 had 4 episodes, when Wikipedia and ITV state 7).

Every showing is also preceded by a nauseatingly self-serving, smug, movie-trailer/awards-show-type introduction from the usually brilliant Laura Linney (why?), so I’d rather buy the DVD or watch it when I’m back in England. Or, if I do watch it here, I can distract myself from the pre-show presentation by preparing a drinking game for episodes I’ve watched already, or take a quiz or two about which character I’d be. Unsurprisingly, I got Mary for one, and the viciously witty Dowager Countess for the other, who has all the best lines.

Cora: Things are different in America. Dowager Countess: I know. They live in wigwams.