Category Archives: TV

TV Review: House of Cards (2013)

House of CardsLoosely based on the 1990 British miniseries of the same name, House of Cards is the baby of NetFlix, the movie streaming service that is growing from strength to strength. NetFlix pumped over $100m into the series and did something a little different by releasing the whole series online at once rather than adding a new episode each week, as would happen were it on television.

On the surface, House of Cards is a simple revenge tale. When Francis ‘Frank’ Underwood (Kevin Spacey) gets screwed over for the Secretary of State post in the White House, he plots revenge on those who betrayed him. However, it goes a lot deeper than that as Frank manipulates various other characters including young newspaper reporter Zoe (Kate Mara), Congressman Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) and even his own wife Claire (Robin Wright).

Each episode has a complex and twisting plot that is easy to lose track of. It can take rather a large amount of concentration to follow everything, especially when certain plot lines disappear for a few episodes before cropping back up. This makes the decision to release all the episodes at once a good one as it allows you to plough through it reasonably quickly and keep track of the various plot strands. A knowledge of US politics is also a recommended prior to watching as it can be tricky to work out who does what and why in the White House.

Having said that, the majority of the storylines themselves are immensely absorbing, whether you’re learning tidbits of Frank’s past, watching Peter struggle to handle his drinking problem, or witness Zoe do whatever it takes to get a good story. Sometimes, particularly with Frank’s backstabbing, it can be difficult to see what the consequences of his actions are. You’re often aware that someone has been screwed over but you’re not quite sure how or why.

What can’t be denied, however, is that Kevin Spacey is nothing short of phenomenal. He is manipulation through and through as Frank and he immediately makes you drawn to him even if some of his actions are rather abhorrent. Wright and Stoll provide excellent support work, but this is all about Spacey and Frank. One of the things that makes the character stand out is his fourth wall-breaking asides to camera. These are likely to polarise opinion and those that give you an insight into Frank’s mind are infinitely more entertaining that those that simply explain what’s going on.

House of Cards is an excellent piece of drama, well written, superbly acted and has some stellar talent on board (David Fincher directs a couple of episodes as well as being exec producer). It falls somewhere in between The West Wing and season five of The Wire and is a strong starting point from which to build upon, both as a show and as a model for television production.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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TV Review: The Walking Dead Season 1

The Walking Dead

Zombie films a ten-a-penny nowadays but they hadn’t successfully shuffled their way onto TV screens. That is until The Walking Dead came along.

When Sheriff Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wakes up in hospital having been shot, he finds that everywhere is overrun by the undead, all eager to rip him limb from limb and feast on his flesh. Nice. Believing his wife and son are still alive he sets off to find out what the hell is going on. He heads off into the nearest big city and finds that the place is overrun by zombies but is helped to escape by Glenn (Steven Yeun) who takes him to a group of other survivors. It’s then a battle to survive as they continue to fight off the undead as well as struggling with their own individual issues.

The Walking Dead starts off at breakneck speed with a feature-length first episode which barely lets you catch your breath. However, it does this to its detriment. Simply too much happens in the first episode and by the time it’s finished, it’s difficult to believe it’s a single episode. We start with Rick getting shot and end up with him in a tank being overrun with zombies. There’s just too much going on in between these two events and it does detract from the horror and shock of the situation. A bit of time to digest what’s going on wouldn’t go amiss. Furthermore, Rick seems barely shocked by the zombie apocalypse. One would imagine a sense of shock would set in, an overwhelming disbelief that pretty much everyone has become a shambling bag of rotting meat. Not so; Rick takes it all in his stride with the mild annoyance of someone who has remembered he forgot to put the bins out. Very much a case of ‘pilot episode syndrome’.

After the first episode, things do chill out a little and we get a bit more time to meet new characters and learn of the various subplots going on. There is a healthy ensemble of characters with plenty of variety among them although, inevitably with the season only being six episodes long, some don’t get much exposure. Season 2 will undoubtedly see to that. The zombies quickly become little more than a secondary focus of the show; the characters and the storylines taking centre stage. This adds to the emotional involvement of the story, although those wanting to see relentless zombie action may be left wanting occasionally.

The zombies themselves look absolutely fantastic. The prosthetics and make-up used make them look every bit as repugnant as you’d hope. Rotting flesh, missing limbs, gallons of blood; everything about them is vile and disgusting, which makes them that much more threatening. Every episode has at least a couple of moments that will make you wince or screw up your face; you really will forget that there are real people behind all make-up.

Season 1 does an admirable job of establishing the story and the characters, but it essentially feels like a prologue for what’s to come. However, if this is anything to go by, then there are exciting times ahead.

Words: Chris Thomson

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TV review: Game of Thrones – Season 1

Game of Thrones is not an easy show to describe. Based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, it sees a number of different families from all over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros all vying for dynastic power and control. That’s it in a very small, anaemic looking nutshell, but trying to adequately describe the storyline is damn near impossible. There’s the Starks (essentially the good guys), the Lanisters (the bad guys), the barbaric Dothraki, and other clans and families fighting for control of the Iron Throne. There’s also another plot line revolving around The Wall, a barrier between the rest of the world and the freezing cold North where there have been reports of long-thought-disappered creatures killing those who misadventure too far. Add to that a smattering of other bits and bobs and it starts to get a little complicated.

Game of Thrones

But that’s always the way with HBO dramas – there’s loads going on with loads of characters and it takes you a while to get into the story and understand everything that’s going on. Once you do get to grips with things, however, Game of Thrones is thoroughly absorbing viewing. The world of Westeros is brilliantly realised and totally believable, and its inhabitants are intriguing and varied in their personalities. Very few of the characters feel surplus to requirements and there’s a genuine desire to see how each of the storylines develop, from the power struggle between the Starks and the Lanisters to little Arya Stark learning to swordfight.

There are characters you’ll love and root for and characters who will make you seethe with rage, but you simply can’t deny that even the most hateful of characters are brought to life superbly. Standouts include Ned Stark (Sean Bean going all Boromir), Petyr Bailish (Aiden Gillen) and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), although you could to pretty much any of the others for further examples. However, without a doubt the best performance comes from Peter Dinklage as the diminutive Tyrion Lanister, known also as The Imp. His wit and sharp tongue is blended seamlessly with more sensitive moments; inviting you to root for him even though the rest of his family are the most abhorrent of the lot.

Spread over a rather thin ten episodes, this first season very much feels like a prelude to what’s to come. Very few of the storylines are resolved, but you’re never left frustrated, simply eager to see what’s to come next – a sign of truly great story telling. Game of Thrones is definitely not for those who struggle to keep track of multiple story arcs, but if you have the time to invest, then you’ll discover a rich world teeming with fascinating characters and enough blood and boobs to make even the heaviest eyebrows rise a little.

Words: Chris Thomson

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Mad Men is Back but the Women are Better – A 1st and 2nd Episode Review

Mad Men is back and classier than ever. Last night seen the launch of season 5 hit show on Sky Atlantic, which proved to be up to the same sophisticated standard that us ‘Mad Meniacs’ have come to expect, as it contained all the stunning fashions, fantastic one liners and sexual tension which make it truly one of a kind.

So, what’s different this season? Well, it’s now set in the 1960s for one thing, so it highlights the uprising of women and the demise of white supremacy. Therefore, the mood has shifted significantly as the men at Sterling Cooper are no longer the dominant force and the woman are undoubtedly running the show, with Peggy pitching big name ads and Joan making sure that her job is well and truly safe once she’s recovered from having her new baby.

If anything, the power shift has left the men a little weaker, with the workaholic Don Draper dropping everything for his new bride Megan. He’s also struggling to control her attention seeking ways, apart from in the bedroom – he has well and truly got that situation under control. Peggy is also bossing the men about and not afraid (not that she ever really was) to make sure that her voice is heard, even if it means insulting her boss.

The only thing I was really disappointed in was the fact that the first two episodes shown no sign of Don’s first wife, Betty. It’s not an episode of Mad Men if the all American blonde isn’t slapping kids or calling her ex a bad Father, and these two episodes definitely missed her ferocity.

If there was anything that these two episodes highlighted, it is that the advertising big shots are nothing without the women behind them.

Words: Lis King.

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How Oz Defined HBO Productions

There be spoilers ahead

Oz was one of those shows that I knew existed but had heard very little about. When I found out it was created by HBO I automatically knew I’d like it – because if there’s one thing HBO doesn’t do then that is bad TV programmes. I soon found out that OZ was the first hour long HBO production and was so popular that it ran for six seasons.

So, how does Oz stack up against some of the most notable HBO productions? Did it influence the shows we know and love today? And why the hell haven’t I heard of it sooner?!

Oz (Oswald State Correctional Facility) is a fictional maximum security prison with most of the central characters based in the experimental Emerald City prison unit. Its purpose is to provide a controlled environment for the violent prisoners, but if there is one thing you’re quick to learn is that there’s no stopping this gang of dangerous criminals. While the show has many references to the Wizard of Oz – it will take more than a pair of glittery red shoes to escape this place.

Oz is basically an amalgamation of some of the best characters in television history, as it’s filled with a range of recognisable faces from HBO shows such as The Wire, Band of Brothers and The Sopranos, as well as several characters from Dexter, Lost, 30 Rock and umpteen films.

One of the most notable characters of the series – and it would be a crime to leave him out – is Augustus Hill (some of you may know him as Michael from Lost) who is a central character throughout the epic series and the narrator of the show. The wheelchair bound murderer had a tough time in Oz and was known as the guy whose heart was always in the right place. While many people who haven’t seen the show would find it difficult to have sympathy for a drug addict and a cop killer, you couldn’t help but admire Augustus and hope that there really were criminals out there like him.

His monologues and character introductions created a whole new dimension to the show, and whilst they often had no direct relation to the stories they often reflected the theme of each episode. I occasionally ask myself whether HBO would use this storytelling method nowadays, and I honestly don’t think they would. It was created in the late 90s – a decade which loved the voice-over; if you don’t believe me then just take a look at Ally McBeal, The Wonder Years or Sex and the City. Would Oz be the same show without it? Probably. But that’s not the point. No other HBO show, in my opinion, has conquered the voice over narrative quite like Oz has.

Augustus Hill

However, there are times when the monologues can become a little self indulgent and while they are an effective literary device, sometimes I feel that they are just added in to fill up a few empty minutes which could be better spent investing in the storylines. The funny monologues undoubtedly offer some light relief to the sometimes dark scenes, but the surreal segments can be too bizarre and occasionally isolate the audience.

The unique thing about Oz is that it’s different to most TV series which are formed on A, B and C characters. The programme does have central characters which you invest in, but there isn’t really one clear protagonist or antagonist – which is probably part of its beauty as they’re all each other’s antagonists. I can practically hear my Creative Writing lecturers screaming at me never to do this – but sometimes doing something different can create something wonderful.

No-one would kill off Tony Soprano in the third season out of six because there would be no show.  Dexter wasn’t going to get caught killing criminals in the first season or there would be no reason to watch it. Liz Lemon is not going to get sacked as Head Writer of the Girly Show because then the format would be screwed. But when it comes to Oz, you should always expect the unexpected. One minute you’re in love with a character, the next minute they’re lying on the floor in a pool of blood – heck, they even killed off the narrator!

The show can sometimes be like a conveyor belt though and they continually feel the need to add in new characters to keep the show fresh – and it works to an extent. However, there can be times where you invest yourself in a character’s story only for them to be killed off after their second or third episode and you won’t hear of them ever again. For example, a priest who was convicted of being a paedophile stayed at Oz to keep safe from society and was killed by an inmate the very same night. Nothing happened to the murderers and his death was never mentioned again. Was this a social comment? Maybe. But it can, at times, be slightly frustrating and is something which the HBO shows following the Oz series have seemingly avoided.

You also won’t watch character transformations quite like it – how often can you watch a straight, quiet lawyer get raped by a Nazi an then fall in love with an Italian man who breaks his legs? Not often. In any other programme you just wouldn’t buy into its absurdity, but I honestly think aliens could move into Emerald City and I’d still believe it. Two of the prisoners were taken over by the Devil and I never even batted an eyelid.

So, has Oz influenced the way HBO create the programmes we know and love today. Who knows? While the show was successful, it was ultimately overshadowed by other fantastic HBO productions. It’s a great shame that it hasn’t received the commercial respect of shows such as The Sopranos and The Wire – because it is up there with the best.

Why was it overshadowed? Probably because the characters you do care about only have a few scenes an episode, so audiences probably invested their time in shows which maintained their interest the whole way through. That’s not to say this show isn’t interesting because it’s anything but boring – but without a protagonist to latch onto then there’s no urgency to switch on the programme. I often found myself searching for a protagonist which I occasionally found in the form of Tobias Beecher – but there would be some episodes when he wasn’t in the show at all. While The Wire didn’t have one protagonist, it did have four central characters (McNulty, Bubbles, Kima and Omar Little). So, Oz’s uniqueness was ultimately its curse.

I think there are some things that worked in Oz and some things that didn’t – and I think HBO learnt lessons from some of the programme’s mistakes – such as cutting out any sign of a penis (I doubt an episode of Oz went by when I didn’t see one). It was the first show of its kind and quite possibly gave HBO the confidence to put their faith into other hard-hitting dramas. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that HBO produced The Sopranos off the back of Oz and then The Wire after that. They identified the need to provide their audience with something they’ve never seen and would probably never see again.

So, is HBO as good as it was back in the late 90s to early 00s? Yes and no. The programmes are still of a consistently high standard, but there hasn’t been a HBO drama that has come close to The Wire and The Sopranos – so you can understand how excited I was to discover Oz. I just wish they’d bring it back.

Words: Lis King

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