2414: Stranger Things

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I watched the first episode of a new Netflix show people have been raving about recently: Stranger Things. I came away very impressed with the whole thing.

Stranger Things is set in 1980s small-town America and appears to have been shot to bear more than a passing resemblance to a 1980s movie. Coming off the back of Turbo Kid, this is something that appealed a great deal to me, and it was interesting to compare how the two works approached it. While Turbo Kid took the extremely graphic approach of violent action movies of the era, Stranger Things’ first episode felt a little more like a somewhat more family-friendly movie — perhaps a PG or a 12 at most. Any violent aspects were de-emphasised in favour of depictions of close friendships between children, the adventurous souls that many ’80s kids had (partly as a result of the awesome movies we had to enjoy) and the dysfunctional nature of many nuclear families.

Stranger Things’ first episode centred around the disappearance of a young boy who had… something happen to him on his way home from a game of Dungeons and Dragons with his friends. His sudden disappearance allows us the opportunity to meet his single mother and older brother as well as the more traditional (albeit extremely dysfunctional) family of one of his friends as they struggle to determine what happened to him. The local police force also gets involved, and in true small-town ’80s America movie tradition, they’re all seemingly lazy and incompetent, but buck their ideas up sharpish when something genuinely serious finally happens in this sleepy little town.

There’s also a touch of high school drama through the older sister of one of the central kids, who has just begun a relationship with a boy who appears to be one of the “cool” kids. In true ’80s movie tradition, their relationship revolves a lot around seeing one another in secret, even though many people — including her younger brother — know exactly what they’re up to. And there’s a strong sense that the boyfriend is very much the sexual “aggressor” in their relationship, for want of a better word, while the sister Nancy herself is keen not to get distracted from her studies; again, this is typical of ’80s movies, which often had not-so-well-hidden messages of abstinence buried in them.

And on top of all that, there’s a mysterious organisation of scientists, because there was always a mysterious organisation of scientists in ’80s movies, and some sort of weird, possibly otherworldly biological horror. And a girl with apparent telekinetic powers who escaped from their clutches.

It felt like Stranger Things was trying to cram as many ’80s movie tropes as possible into its 50-minute first episode — almost too many — but it managed to do so without buckling under its own weight, and without being too self-conscious or self-referential about it. What it ended up being was a remarkably authentic-feeling slice of ’80s nostalgia that offered enough intriguing little plot threads to make me very keen to see what happened next. It never felt over the top or overt with its ’80s references; it was just when it was set, and everything about it supported that setting, right down to the fact it looks like it was shot on film rather than video.

I’m looking forward to seeing where the show develops from its strong first episode. I’m expecting great things. Strange things, even.

2401: Episodes

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I’ve just finished watching the first season of a Showtime show called Episodes, which is available on Netflix. It stars Stephen Mangan and Tamsin Greig as a husband and wife writer duo who head to LA to make an American version of their successful (fictional) British sitcom Lyman’s Boys, only to discover that taking a show across the pond isn’t an entirely straightforward affair. Along the way they become involved with a number of colourful characters, most notably a fictionalised version of Matt LeBlanc played by ol’ Joey himself.

The overall tone of the show is pretty much what you’d expect from something Greig and Mangan are involved with, and they’re perfectly cast in their roles as Beverly and Sean Lincoln. LeBlanc, too, is excellent, with his characterisation being made up of a combination of the popular stereotypes about him — or rather, about his most fondly-remembered part, Joey from Friends — and a surprising amount of depth and moral ambiguity.

The show is deeply critical of the way American TV networks and showbusiness in general do things. Initially brought to LA on the assurance that network executive “Merc” is in love with their show, Sean and Beverly subsequently discover that very little of what they’ve been told is true. Merc hasn’t seen their show and lots of people already have their own opinions on how best to “Americanise” the whole thing. Most notable is the casting of LeBlanc in the lead role of the headmaster Lyman, who was, in the original British version, an erudite, witty, portly and middle-aged man who developed a strong bond with his young male charges and a doomed infatuation with his school’s lesbian librarian. After a number of “suggestions” and changes far beyond Sean and Beverly’s control, what was once called Lyman’s Boys and was about a headmaster in a boys’ boarding school subsequently becomes Pucks!, a show about a lacrosse coach who is in love with a not-at-all-lesbian librarian.

Despite everything, Pucks! actually turns out to be a rather good show that test audiences respond well to, but the stress that piles on top of Sean and Beverly brings the pair of them almost to breaking point on numerous occasions. Sean’s developing friendship with LeBlanc and his overactive libido leads him to consider playing away from Beverly with Morning, the much-older-than-she-looks-but-still-smoking-hot actress who plays the librarian in Pucks!, but ultimately his own sense of integrity wins out. This doesn’t stop Beverly from overreacting and completely misreading the situation, however, leading to some spectacular tensions being released in the last episode of the first season.

Episodes is effective because, for the most part, it relies on a distinctly modern British approach to situation comedy. That is to say, it errs more on the side of comedy-drama than playing out setpieces for laughs. There’s an air of restraint that runs through the whole programme, which makes moments like the furious and rather incompetent fight between Sean and LeBlanc in the last episode all the more effective, because they are symptomatic of how the show depicts “the British condition” as a whole: bottling everything up inside, then releasing it in a spectacular frenzy when it all gets too much. LeBlanc even comments on this in the middle of the whole situation that he is, in part, to blame for: “Man, I can’t get over how you guys fight,” he says. “When we fight, it’s just all ‘fuck you’, ‘fuck you’, ‘no, fuck YOU’…”

With everything I’ve said there, you’d probably be right to assume that Episodes isn’t a show that everyone will find entirely palatable. It’s rather brutally honest and plays a lot on awkward situations that some viewers might find uncomfortable to witness. It builds tension between the characters absolutely masterfully, only releasing it when it’s absolutely at breaking point. And, as a critique of the falseness of showbusiness, it does its job extremely well.

Very interested to see how the subsequent seasons go, since the first season ended on a suitably infuriating cliffhanger.

2371: Bad Education

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My favourite thing about Netflix is the fact that it allows you to try out various series that you might not have thought to take a look at when they were on TV, nor do you feel inclined to go and pick up a DVD or Blu-Ray of them, but which nonetheless intrigued you for one reason or another. Because you’re not paying for the series itself — it’s just part of your Netflix subscription — you can try things out, and if they’re shit, well, you just stop watching them; and if they’re good, you can enjoy them to your heart’s content on your own terms.

Such was the case with Bad Education, a show originally broadcast on BBC Three. Something being broadcast on BBC Three is more often than not an immediate signal that it’s going to be shit, but since I’ve always had a certain affinity for media of any kind — books, games, films, TV series, anime, visual novels — set in a school environment, I was very much curious about it. And I’ve been pleased to discover that it’s actually not shit. It’s actually some pretty solid — and unabashedly offensive — situation comedy, albeit almost totally divorced from the reality of working in education.

Jack Whitehall stars as Alfie Wickers, an incompetent History teacher who seems rather more concerned with being friends with his (unrealistically small!) form group than actually doing his job properly. Nonetheless, he does care about the kids’ education in his own way, with many of his escapades concluding in some sort of life lesson being learned by them — or, more frequently, by him.

Alfie’s class is probably the highlight of the show, because it’s the most believable, realistic part of it, miniscule size aside. Speaking from the perspective of a former teacher, I can say with confidence that they’re the very picture of the class that every school has who are a bit shit at everything — apart from one extremely clever student, whose very presence at a school as shit as that seems completely out of place — but you can’t help but like. They remind me very much of class 9VN that I taught in the first school I worked in; for the first few weeks, I thought they were complete shitheads and would never get anything done with them, so appalling was their behaviour and attitude towards Music lessons… and then we discovered that they had a curious affinity for singing songs from musicals. So that’s what we did. Or rather, that’s what most of them did, while I set the few kids who were actually interested in studying music at GCSE and beyond to some other assignments. The class as a whole ended up being one of the few I actually look back on with a certain degree of fondness.

As for the show itself, it’s very much a comedy with a certain degree of surrealism to it. In the second season in particular, it reminds me very much of the gloriously bizarre Green Wing, especially due to the presence of Michelle Gomez, who was also in Green Wing and plays pretty much the exact same character in Bad Education. Its seeming homage to Green Wing is emphasised through chaotic, time-distorted interstitial scenes with heavy visual filters on them to denote the passing of time or the simple division between story beats in the episode — though this only really becomes a thing in the second series, where the show as a whole seems to have a much stronger sense of its identity and what it’s trying to do.

The supporting cast is solid, too. Matthew Horne’s woefully terrible (and “banter”-obsessed) headmaster Fra$er [sic] is cringeworthy in the extreme in a sort of David Brent manner, but somehow just manages to stay the right side of believable within the context of the show. Harry Enfield is excellent as Alfie’s father. And Sarah Solemani’s portrayal of Wickers’ love interest Rosie Gulliver brings a much-needed “straight man” to the proceedings, though her characterisation is a bit meandering — in particular, her short-lived dalliance with a lesbian side-plot doesn’t really go anywhere, and the show subsequently returns to the admittedly solid foundation of the “will they, won’t they” relationship between her and Alfie that has been the basis of many a successful sitcom over the years.

Bad Education isn’t the best show on television by a long shot, but it’s laugh out loud funny, well cast and snappily written. For a BBC Three show, it’s god-tier. For something you just want to whack on while you veg out in front of the television, it’s solid. As a scathing critique of the modern educational system in the UK, you may want to look elsewhere!

2325: Science Club

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I’ve never thought of myself as particularly “scientifically minded” — I always felt like I hated maths at school, although thinking about it I did end up doing reasonably well at it at GCSE level, and I did actually genuinely enjoy science lessons — but in the last few years in particular I’ve found myself very interested in TV shows that deal with scientific principles, preferably in an entertaining sort of way.

There are a few shows I have in mind for this sort of thing which if you, like me, are interested in generic sciencey things but perhaps don’t have the opportunity to study them as a career (or as a hobby), you might want to check out.

First up is Brainiac, which I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about on these pages before. Brainiac is a show that aired on satellite channel Sky One between 2003 and 2008. Featuring Richard Hammond (best known for Top Gear and Total Wipeout) in the presenter’s chair, sternly reminding viewers Not To Try This At Home, the show was designed to be “science entertainment” in that it set up all manner of experiments with genuine scientific principles in mind, but executed them with a fair degree of tongue in cheek. This made it both genuinely interesting and informative to watch as well as being something you could just chill out in front of and have a good laugh with. Despite having watched most of the episodes several times, I happily return to it every so often; it’s a pity it’s not on a service like Netflix for some better quality videos — I have to rely on dodgy downloads or YouTube at present.

Next up is Mythbusters, an American show which takes nuggets of popular wisdom and puts them to the test in various ways. The show’s hosts have a background in special effects, so they often make use of this knowledge to perform their experiments in unnecessarily spectacular ways. It takes a little while to get into the show’s groove if you’re not accustomed to the hosts’ rather dry, deadpan sense of humour, but it’s very entertaining and, again, informative if you pay attention to the science bits.

Finally is my most recent discovery, Dara O’Briain’s Science Club. O’Briain is primarily known as a comedian and host of topical panel show Mock the Week, but over the last few years he’s been spreading his wings a bit and taking on subjects such as mathematics and now science. He’s clearly a clever man, and he has some even cleverer friends who come out to play for Science Club. Each show focuses on a specific topic and explores it in detail, and the topics under the microscope (sorry) range from the human brain to the possibility of space travel and Mars colonisation. The show incorporates experiments, “live” studies involving the studio audience, documentary-style footage and layman’s explanations of complicated scientific concepts. It’s an extremely compelling show, and it’s probably a mistake for Andie and I to watch it when we’re trying to get to sleep, because it’s the kind of show you want to pay attention to!

And on that note, I’m off to bed to learn some science and perhaps, maybe, get some sleep.

2307: The Trip

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When I can’t sleep or am otherwise in a position where I am too mentally impaired to do anything active — in other words, all I want to do is stare dumbly at a screen — rather than, as some people do, put the TV on and just watch it, even if I’m not interested in what’s on, I like to trawl Netflix for things I’ve never seen and haven’t even heard of before, but which sound interesting.

I’ve discovered a bunch of interesting things this way, the last of which was the rather wonderful (if cringeworthy) W1A, and more recently I’ve been watching a show called The Trip, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.

The Trip is an interesting concept that builds on the fashionable “fake docudrama” trend that began with The Office. Casting Coogan and Brydon as fictionalised, exaggerated versions of themselves, the series follows them as they take a tour of the North of England, stopping at some of the supposed best restaurants in the region with a mind to writing an article for The Observer Magazine. Coogan’s original plan for the trip was to take it as a romantic getaway with his American girlfriend Misha, and still be able to use it as paying work, but prior to the start of the series, she moves back to the States to pursue her own career dreams in Hollywood, leaving Coogan more distraught and lonely than he’d care to admit, only inviting Brydon seemingly as a last resort.

The pair’s trip across the North is largely irrelevant to the main point of the show, though it does take in some of Northern England’s most spectacular sights, a number of which I hadn’t heard of before. Instead, the main aspect of the show is the relationship between Brydon and Coogan, and more specifically how Brydon’s easygoing nature and sense of contentment with his life — even as he is, according to Coogan’s standards, less successful than his friend — gradually draws out Coogan’s true feelings about his situation.

Brydon lives in a small but comfortable family home with his wife and children; Coogan lives in a fancy apartment in London by himself now that Misha is gone. Brydon enjoys his life and calls his wife just to hear her voice, flirt with her and occasionally get a bit down and dirty with her; Coogan calls Misha in the States, sometimes forgetting the timezone difference, sometimes not respecting what she wants, perpetually unusure of what he wants. Brydon brings a sense of levity to any situation he’s in, often filling uncomfortable silences with his (admittedly impressive) impersonations of famous people — something which Coogan is forever frustrated that he’s just not quite as good at as Brydon; Coogan takes everything much too seriously, sometimes admonishing Brydon for his happy-go-lucky approach to life, sometimes clearly wanting to say what’s really on his mind and on one — only one — occasion frustrating a for-once quiet Brydon, who just wants to enjoy the scenery, with a lengthy geological explanation of how the Malham Cove limestone pavement came to be.

The contrast between Coogan and Brydon is potent; it shows two ways you can approach modern life. You can follow Brydon’s path, which is arguably the most traditional, straightforward, unambitious path, and enjoy a happy, contented life while never quite attaining true dizzy heights of, say, stardom or being the top of your field. Or you can follow Coogan’s path, which is a much more significant gamble: throw everything you have into trying to be the best in your field that you can be, and run the risk of being frustrated that other people can’t see what you know about yourself. Coogan’s frustration — outright depression, at times — at his situation is downright heartbreaking; his gamble hasn’t at all paid off, though he does have the opportunity to make one final one by moving to the States with Misha to do a pilot TV show for HBO. By the end of the first season, however, Brydon has clearly rubbed off on him: after what is clearly an agonising session of soul-searching, he decides not to take that gamble, and instead — presumably — to focus on making himself happy rather than continually being let down by his life and the people he thought he cared about.

The Trip is a funny show; it’s a comedy at heart, and the interactions between Brydon and Coogan are well-written, snappy and genuinely amusing. But there are considerably more tragic undertones with Coogan’s own personal journey as the titular trip continues. While Coogan comes across as an arrogant dickhead at the start of the show — and still bears this character trait to a certain extent at the end — as the episodes proceed and we get an occasional glimpse into what he’s really thinking and feeling, it’s hard not to feel bad for him, and the contrast between how his and Brydon’s respective lives have turned out is certainly thought-provoking.

I haven’t yet watched the second season, but on the strength of the first, I’m very interested to. If you like well-written, fairly gentle, character-driven comedy drama with more than a slight tinge of pathos — as many other good comedies have — then The Trip is well worth your time to take on.

2290: The Excruciating Accuracy of W1A

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The other night, I was randomly trawling Netflix for something to watch while I couldn’t sleep, and I stumbled across a BBC show I’d never seen before called W1A. I later discovered that this was the follow-up to Twenty Twelve (which I also haven’t seen yet), and is one of the most effective “fake documentary” series I’ve seen since the original British version of The Office.

W1A focuses on the BBC itself, which is a pretty ballsy move given how scathing the show is of BBC corporate culture. Casting Hugh “Downton Abbey” Bonneville in the role of Ian Fletcher, the BBC’s new Head of Values, the show follows Fletcher’s efforts to make sense of the waffling business-speak world that one of the world’s most celebrated broadcasters has become in the last few years. Fletcher is by no means a blameless character in all this, but he, by far, comes across as one of the most “normal” and relatable characters in the cast.

The reason for this is that the rest of the cast members are exaggerated parodies of various office archetypes. I would say that they are exaggerated to the degree of absurdity, but not far through the first episode I realised that I had met and interacted with each and every one of these archetypes at various points in my professional life — in education, in office work and in retail — and suddenly it didn’t feel quite so absurd after all. It was still amusing, but in a tragic sort of way; the realisation hit me that this is what the world has become these days.

One of the most frequent character traits on display is relentless, unnecessary positivity, even when it’s completely inappropriate. It’s not unusual to see serious issues being raised in meetings, with the only responses from around the table being a chorus of “Brilliant.” “Great.” “Well then.” “Marvellous.” and “Okay then.” Likewise, to my chagrin, I’ve caught myself using some of the character traits of intern Will, most notably his blind agreeing (and declaration that it’s “cool” and “no worries”) with everything that people say, only to admit that he didn’t actually hear what he just agreed to just a moment later.

While I find W1A pretty excruciating to watch — particularly when Jessica Hynes and her painfully millenial PR company “Perfect Curve” are on screen — it’s nonetheless rather compelling and almost reassuring in a strange sort of way: a viewer’s initial reaction to these seeming caricatures — their repetitiveness and their relentless, inappropriate cheerfulness — as them being absurd in some way is entirely deliberate. The writers of the show know how ridiculous and absurd the situation is, along with all the nonsense that goes on in modern corporate culture — which more often than not cares more about outward appearances than actually making life good for its employees and clients — and the show itself acts as a means of people who are tired of this aspect of modern life to come together, point and laugh, then perhaps go and have a little cry in the corner.

You’re not alone in hating the way the world has turned out, says W1A. We hate it too; we’ve just decided to laugh at it, because what’s the alternative?

2253: It is the Piece of a Smile Everyone Acquires

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I’ve already written generally about how much I like yuri/shoujo ai slice-of-life anime Yuru Yuri, but I wanted to single out a particular episode as a great example of what this genre does really well: the third season’s eighth episode, boasting the impressively Engrish title It is the Piece of a Smile Everyone Acquires.

Yuru Yuri has a few aspects in common with other, similar slice-of-life shows, but the show it reminds me of most is Squid Girl/Ika Musume — a show where, despite its fantastical, ridiculous premise, manages to be oddly believable and comforting in how it depicts its relationships between characters. It’s not so much the thematic similarities that I’m concerned with, more the format: Ika Musume explicitly splits each of its “episodes” into several smaller vignettes that tell miniature stories in their own right, and within these vignettes the show often experiments with form, structure and even aesthetic. Its most striking episodes are the ones where it goes completely off-piste, such as those that feature the “miniature Squid Girl”, whose sequences are completely dialogue-free, and which make wonderful use of music and animation to produce surprisingly evocative, emotive scenes.

The similarities between Yuru Yuri and Ika Musume struck me during the pre-credits opening of It is the Piece of a Smile Everyone Acquires because it adopts a similar approach to the aforementioned “miniature Squid Girl” episodes: it’s completely dialogue-free, focuses on a character that isn’t normally at the forefront (or, in the case of mini-Squid Girl, isn’t normally in the show at all in that form) and does all its storytelling through its soundtrack.

In the case of It is the Piece of a Smile Everyone Acquires, the episode opens by focusing on the student council president, a character who is so meek and timid that we only ever see her mouthing words in regular episodes; she has no voice, so far as the audience is concerned. The characters always understand, her, though, which is the core joke of her character, but this opening sequence approaches it from a different angle, showing how she understands people — and makes herself understood — without the use of words.

Yuru Yuri already has a wonderfully evocative soundtrack that complements its on-screen action perfectly, but this opening sequence in It is the Piece of a Smile Everyone Acquires takes things to a new level: adopting an almost programmatic approach to its music, with distinctive themes and instrumentation being used for the individual characters who show up over the course of the sequence, it’s a fine example of how words, sometimes, simply aren’t necessary: you can make an interesting and heartwarming piece of art using only visuals and sound. (You can make an interesting and heartwarming piece of art using only one of those things, too, of course, but this is a TV show we’re talking about here; to deliberately refuse to use one of the core features of the medium is noteworthy.)

The rest of the episode is entertaining in itself, too, but somewhat more conventional for the most part; this pre-credits sequence, however, was so striking I felt I had to write something about it. I’d share the video here if it was on YouTube, but no-one appears to have ripped it; you can, however, watch the full episode on Crunchyroll at this link, and I can highly recommend the whole series from the very beginning if you want some enjoyable, lightweight fluff to cheer yourself up with.