Thoughts on some (non Japanese toon) TV shows.
Back when I started this blog, the idea was to focus mostly on anime and manga, with occasional pieces on other stuff I’m also interested, e.g. Asian live film, Western TV, and books without pictures in them. Well, the latter never quite materialize… until now! I plan to diversify my writing a bit for this year, and I’ll start by jotting down my impression on a few shows that I watched throughout 2016 and a couple others that I started recently.
(*as with most things, I’m at least a year behind what’s trending in the TV fandom. I think the current hot thing is some show about a young pope that may or may not be real. Also, I watched all of the stuff below through my regional Malaysia-based streaming service iFlix)
And Then There Were None
Basic Info: A 3-episode miniseries adaptation of Agatha Christie novel
Original Network: BBC One
Key Staff: Sarah Phelps (Writer), Craig Viveiros (Director), Stuart Earl (Music), Maeve Dermody (Actor), Charles Dance (Actor), Aidan Turner (Actor)
In a nutshell: Ten strangers find themselves stranded in a mysterious island, where they’re about to be judged for their past crime
Okay, so the original novel is one of may all-time favorite; arguably the best/most renowned title in the genre of murder mystery, and one whose long-lasting influence you’ve probably seen elsewhere even if you never actually heard of it. As for this adaptation, it’s the best one that I’ve seen. Granted, it’s also the only adaptation that I’ve ever seen, although I heard the Russian film version is pretty swell too. At the very least, this one doesn’t botch the ending or anything ridiculous like that.
Truly, the adaptation retains the spirit of the original work: a murder mystery sans a detective character, buoyed by devilishly clever plotting, fun characters, and terrific atmosphere. It’s less of a puzzle box than the novel and lack the characters’ inner monologue (one of the book’s key features), but still works as a relatively fast-paced thriller with strong cast. There are some silly additions like cocaine, sex, and Lombard-centred fanservice, but they’re mostly harmless enough that I can let them slide.
Overall, I’d wager it’s a fun watch for fans of the novel. As for the uninitiated… there’s a bit of a conundrum in that the miniseries works best if you haven’t read the book, but I’d still recommend reading the book first for the best experience. Ah well, if you like mystery and absolutely sure you’re not ever going to read the book, give it a shot.
Fargo (Season 1+2)
Basic Info: American crime anthology drama inspired by the movie Fargo, 2 seasons (10 episodes each)
Original Network: FX
Key Staff: Noah Hawley (Creator), Dana Gonzales & Matthew J. Lloyd (Cinematography), Jeff Russo (Music), Allison Tolman (Actor), Billy Bob Thornton (Actor), Martin Freeman (Actor), Patrick Wilson (Actor), Kirsten Dunst (Actor), Jesse Plemons (Actor)
In a nutshell: A string of bizarre criminal incidents occur in Fargo, Minnesota
The original Fargo is a quintessential Coen Brothers film, and the first season of the series made noticeable efforts to duplicate the film’s formative elements while simultaneously being a brand new narrative. It tried a bit too hard at that, I think. The principal characters feel like they’re poor men’s version of the film’s characters, and the random anecdotes + funny accent come off forced most of the time. Some silly ninja assassin shenanigan at the middle episodes, too. Apart from that, it’s a solid crime drama with delicious doses of black comedy—doesn’t really belong at the top tier of its genre, but it has its moments. The very likable protagonists certainly help a lot, as do the memorable antagonists (though there’s a few cringe-worthy moments involving the latter).
The second season, a self-contained narrative that takes place some years before the events in the first season, fared a bit better because it aped the original film less and consequently became more of its own thing. More unpredictable and tightly plotted in general, with knock-out performances from Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst as young-couple-turned-amateur-criminals. Their characters are the main driver of both the thriller and comedic portions of the narrative, being responsible for the beautifully chaotic chain reactions that characterized the season and the brand name in general.
I enjoyed this series a lot, and will be looking forward for the third season!
Don’t Trust the B—in Apartment 23 (Season 1+2)
Basic Info: Original American sitcom, 2 seasons (26 episodes in total)
Original Network: ABC
Key Staff: Nahnatchka Khan (Creator), Dreama Walker (Actor), Kristen Rytter (Actor), James Van Der Beek (Actor)
In a nutshell: A wide-eyed career girl moves in to New York and becomes the roommate of a supremely narcisstic and amoral party girl
Alternatively, the snark generation’s Friends. American comedy tends to bounce off of me due to some combination of laugh track (fortunately most modern shows don’t do this anymore), cultural gap, and general air of mean-spiritedness that I don’t care much for. While Don’t Trust the B does have the latter two factors to some extent, I ended up liking it, thanks to the chemistry between its principal characters. It’s well-executed more often than not, with inspired banter (“Anyone wanna get weird and play Mario Kart?”) and comedic set-pieces abound.
I came for Rytter, a charismatic performer who plays the titular bitch, but it’s Walker’s adorable June who really anchored the show by delivering a straight woman performance as great as any I saw in recent times. These two really work well together. The supporting cast is more of a mixed bag; the most important one (James VDB, playing himself in a hilariously self-aware performance) is comic gold most of the time, but the likes of Elie and Robin don’t contribute much to the table and end up being much more cringe-worthy than funny. As a whole, the show really don’t stray much from the typical sitcom formula of ‘introduction of gag of the week—>chaos and hilarity ensues—>heart-warming ending and status quo being more or less maintained’, but in a more round-about way and with snarky panache.
I enjoyed this a good deal and it’s a bit of a shame that it’s not renewed for more seasons, but what’s available should be good enough for fans of this type of comedy.
Bates Motel (currently in Season 2)
Basic Info: American thriller/suspense series inspired by the movie/novel Psycho, 4 seasons (10 episodes each)
Original Network: A&E
Key Staff: Anthony Cipriano, Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin (Creators), Thomas Yatsko, John S. Bartley (Cinematography), Chris Bacon (Music), Freddie Highmore (Actor), Vera Farmiga (Actor)
In a nutshell: Mother and son embarks on a new business venture, integrates themselves into a peaceful and prosperous society, and live happily ever after
I guess I’m a bit of a sucker for spin-off of great movie.
A prequel show to Psycho set in modern time, but somehow has the quaint quality in it that should please fans of the original work. There are only three groups of characters in this show as far as I’m concerned: the mother-son tandem Norma and Norman, Decent People, and Bad News People/Cannon Fodder, and make no mistake, the show is absolutely dependent on the first one. Much have been said about the remarkable performances of Highmore and Farmiga, so I’ll just preach to the choir here by agreeing that they completely owned their roles and dominated the proceeding to such extent that things get so much less interesting when the camera moves away from their characters.
The thing with prequel is that though you already knew the destination, it’s still fun to see how the journey unfolds and spot all the foreshadowing they planted all over the place. The point of this show is to explore the relationship between the iconic Norman Bates and his mother, and so far they successfully engaged me in that matter: it’s such a toxic and creepy dynamics, and yet also genuinely moving and bittersweet at spots. At the very least, seeing the two leads yelling each other’s name in melodramatic fashion (“Norman!” “Mother!” “NORMAAAAN!!” “MOTHERRRR!!” *cue my hysterical laughter*) alone is worth the price of admission.
The Suspicious Housekeeper (currently halfway done)
Basic Info: Korean remake of a Japanese black comedy/suspense series, 1 season (20 episodes)
Original Network: Seoul Broadcasting System
Key Staff: Kim Hyung-shik (Director), Baek Woon-chul (Writer), Choi Ji-woo (Actor), Lee Sung-jae (Actor), Kim So-hyun (Actor)
In a nutshell: A mysterious stone-faced maid, who can literally do anything asked of her except smile, is assigned to a family reeling from the mother’s death
I’m not exactly well-versed in Korean TV shows, but there’s one thing that my expert friends kept telling me: don’t watch adaptations of Japanese drama. Well, here I am, anyway; the premise makes it sound like my kind of thing. and this is the version that’s available to me. So far it’s a decent mix of black comedy, heart-warming family drama, and mystery, and it’s been fun to see the titular character ‘heals’ each family member she’s serving in detached and ridiculously efficient manner.
There’s a lot of gags that had me in stitches, and I like the characters, who are mostly endearing people with some rough edges. However, I can totally see how it might be a downgrade from the J-drama it’s adapted from. The original show (Kaseifu no Mita) is only 11-episode long, but this one has nine more eps, and it already lost a bit of steam halfway through. I’m not sure if it’s the norm for such adaptation, but the increased running time only result in additional characters and romantic sub-plot that I couldn’t care less about and only detracted from the great central premise. Well, I think I’d still be enjoying this show to the end, and perhaps I’ll also check the Japanese version one day.