2512: Police, Stop!

One of my many not-particularly-guilty pleasures is terrible police documentaries. Not the kind that deal with actual hard-hitting crime like murders and whatnot, but the shows that are typically on late-night TV and focus on the more mundane parts of the police force such as traffic and rail cops.

I’m not sure why I enjoy these shows so much, but I have done for quite some time. I think part of it is the fact that I’ve always taken a certain degree of pride in being law-abiding and resent those who get away with breaking the law — consequently, I rather enjoy seeing people who have done something wrong get into trouble.

I get the impression from these shows that it’s not particularly fashionable to be in favour of the police or of “authority” figures in general, and as such the shows themselves tend to be skewed rather more in favour of the police than the criminals. Good PR and all that. All that said, even without the inherent bias in the shows I’m pretty sure I’d find it tough to sympathise with a drug dealer or twat driving an old banger without any insurance.

The one thing that does bug me a bit about the police depicted in these shows is their ridiculous overreliance on business-speak and jargon. It’s never a car crash, it’s an “RTC”. It’s never a house, it’s a “property”. And God knows what they’re on about with half of the charges. “Aggravated vehicle taking?” No, mate, you nicked a car.

These documentaries aren’t going to win any awards for quality television or hard-hitting journalism, and often end in a rather unsatisfactory manner explaining just how the people the cops in the episode spent tailing managed to not get locked up for the things they clearly did, but I still find them enjoyable nonetheless. They’re not something I’d find myself actively watching in favour of something else, but as something on in the background — usually while we’re trying to get to sleep — they’re hard to beat.

On that note, it’s an early start tomorrow so it’s time to get to bed and hear Jamie Theakston explain what ANPR is for the 500th time.

2504: Tears of the Prophets

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Reached the end of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s sixth season this evening and despite inadvertently spoiling myself on the death of a major character some months earlier (though given Deep Space Nine’s age, I’m surprised I lasted this long without spoilers!), it remained an impactful episode and an excellent season finale.

I really like how Deep Space Nine developed. While it started as something of a “soap opera in space”, which is why some people found it a little dull when compared to the galaxy-spanning adventures of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the gradual buildup of the Dominion storyline into all-out war throughout the sixth season gave the show scope to deftly and subtly readjust its focus over time.

At the end of the sixth season, it’s still recognisably distinct from the more “mobile” Star Trek series such as The Next Generation and Voyager, but the action following Sisko and his comrades into battle against the Dominion gets the action off the station often enough to keep things fresh and interesting — and Tears of the Prophets, the sixth season finale, features some spectacular space combat sequences, an area in which Deep Space Nine generally excels.

One thing I’ve found particularly interesting about the show as a whole is the development of the character Gul Dukat. Initially presented as a character whose motivations and overall alignment wasn’t entirely clear, he’s had plenty of significant moments over the course of the series, ranging from joyful to tragedy. When he’s at his lowest ebb, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him, because the show certainly kicks the shit out of him, but Tears of the Prophets makes it abundantly clear why it took such pains to make us sympathise with Dukat as he lost everything he held dear.

Dukat’s losses drive him to absolute desperation. He willingly allows himself to be possessed by a Pah-Wraith, the antithesis to the “Prophets”, aliens who live in the wormhole that Deep Space Nine protects. The Wraith kills [REDACTED so you don’t have to suffer like I did] and apparently cuts off the connection between the Prophets and Bajor before leaving Dukat’s body. We’re left to see Dukat with a few regrets — most notably the death of [AHEM] — but an overall sense that he’s enacted vengeance that he’s satisfied with.

This sequence — and the consequences therein — highlight another reason why I enjoy Deep Space Nine: it doesn’t attempt to explain everything away with (fake but plausible) science. Oh, sure, there’s plenty of traditional Star Trek technobabble throughout the series, but also there’s a real sense that some things simply are unknowable and impossible to understand by humanity at its stage of development in the 24th century. The recognition and embracing of this is the basis of religion (or spiritualism at the very least) and Deep Space Nine as a whole handles this sort of thing very nicely. It also makes for some extremely dramatic moments, as metaphysical, “supernatural” things are far less predictable than those which can be explained by science.

I’m looking forward to seeing how the series ends, and am very glad that I’ve finally got around to watching it all the way through for the first time. I’m even more glad that doing so is a simple matter of watching it on Netflix rather than collecting however many hundred VHS cassettes would have formed the complete run on its original release!

2492: Fresh Meat

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Fresh Meat is a show by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, of Peep Show fame. Across four seasons, it concerns the lives of a houseful of university students from their initial arrival at university through to the end of their final exams.

I remember watching the first few episodes of the first season and really enjoying it, but for one reason or another I never finished watching that season. More recently, however, I’ve been watching the complete run on Netflix and enjoying it a great deal; much like one’s university life, it evolves and changes over the course of the three years/four seasons, but it manages to maintain enough coherence throughout to feel like a convincing serialised story rather than simply an episodic comedy-drama, which it could have easily turned into.

Part of the reason for its feeling of coherence is the fact that it managed to keep its core cast together for the entire run, and said cast is an excellent lineup. All of them are flawed to one degree or another, but none of them are so far beyond redemption as to become dislikeable. On the contrary, the show frequently demonstrates that behind prominent displays of bravado, there is often someone crying for help or struggling to express themselves.

One of the first characters we see in Fresh Meat is Greg McHugh’s portrayal of Howard. His first appearance is wearing only a jumper, no trousers or underpants, and drying some dead poultry on a washing line across the kitchen using a hairdryer. It would have been easy for the show to keep Howard as a deranged character, only coming out for comedy relief or gross-out factor, but even within the first episode, we quickly see that he’s been designed with a lot more thought behind him. Across the entire run, Howard actually becomes a character that it is easy to sympathise and empathise with, since in many regards he’s the character who makes the biggest strides outside his comfort zone — particularly with regard to social situations and taking perceived “risks” like asking a girl he likes out — and who manages to pick himself up repeatedly after numerous setbacks.

Zawe Ashton’s portrayal of Vod is also noteworthy, as Vod initially comes across as an arrogant, dislikeable young woman with an attitude problem. Her abrasive edge doesn’t dull throughout the entire run of the series, keeping her as a formidable person that most people would probably find tough to get close to, but piece by piece, we start to understand the difficulties she’s endured through her life and why she has ended up as the person she is. Most people probably won’t end up liking Vod as such, but we certainly understand her pretty well and can sympathise with her by the series’ end.

Kimberley Nixon’s Josie subverts the “sensible girl” trope often found in series of this nature. While initially appearing to be the cast member who has it together the most among the group, Josie’s character goes into a downward spiral early in the series, succumbing to a combination of alcoholism, stress and depression that sees her getting kicked off her dentistry course for drunkenly putting a drill through a woman’s cheek, moving to Southampton, moving back to Manchester in the hope of a relationship with fellow cast member Kingsley, and from there seemingly repeatedly sabotaging her own potential for happiness. Outwardly, Josie is one of the most cheerful, optimistic-seeming characters, but as the show progresses, she becomes one of the most tragic figures in it.

Joe Thomas’ depiction of Kingsley initially appears almost identical to his portrayal of Simon in The Inbetweeners — mostly due to his trademark rather sardonic delivery — but over time Kingsley becomes a distinctive character in his own right. Whereas Simon was fairly aloof and detached from the idiocy of the rest of the group in The Inbetweeners, Kingsley becomes a character who consistently tries too hard and often finds himself coming a cropper as a result. His relationship with Josie is initially set up to be the “Ross and Rachel” of the show through its on-again, off-again nature, but in the latter seasons in particular it becomes clear that the two are simply not right for one another. Kingsley repeatedly puts across the impression that he desperately wants to “grow up” but isn’t entirely sure how, with his attempts ranging from developing an interest in composing his own rather emo music to growing an ill-advised and rather pathetic soul patch. His desires are perhaps most explicitly demonstrated in the final season, when he gets together with an older woman and is initially ecstatic about the prospect, even when it becomes abundantly clear that she is not going to treat him well.

Charlotte Richie’s portrayal of Oregon is one of the strongest performances in the show, ironically because of how understated a lot of her delivery is. Oregon, or Melissa as she’s really called, desperately wants to appear cool and it’s immediately apparent from the outset that she’s attempted to “reinvent” herself for university life after a privileged upbringing. She has a habit of getting drawn into positions that initially seem like a good idea at the time, but which quickly turn sour. In the first season, this is exemplified through her relationship with her English tutor Professor Shales; in the final season, we see her mount a successful campaign to become Student Union president only to be lumbered with massive debt, impending legal action and the realisation that she’s little more than a “ribbon cutter” for the people who actually have power. To her credit, Oregon always tries to fight her way out of these situations and is often successful in doing so; while the adversity she encounters throughout the series is usually of her own creation — perhaps deliberately so, given the life of privilege she grew up with — she doesn’t ever buckle under the pressure, and usually comes out stronger and having learned something from her experiences. Of all the characters, she’s probably the least overtly “tragic” in one way or another; in many ways, she becomes the most admirable after initially being one of the biggest fakers there is.

Finally, Jack Whitehall’s depiction of J.P. largely consists of Jack Whitehall playing an exaggerated version of himself, but it really works, at least partly because J.P. is written as more than a one-dimensional “posho” laughing stock of a character. Over the course of the four seasons, we come to understand J.P. as a deeply confused, conflicted young man who doesn’t understand how the world works — like Oregon, he grew up with a life of privilege, but unlike her, he initially makes no attempt to reinvent himself, instead preferring to try and solve his problems by throwing money at them. In an early episode, he learns the folly of this approach when he gets taken advantage of to a ridiculous degree by his former schoolmates, and from here his growth as a character begins. Each time he proclaims that he wants to have “a large one” or that he is desperate to be regarded as “a legend”, it rings a little less true; inside, he’s a man who sees his future looming ahead, but he can’t see what lies beyond the veil at the end of his university life. That’s a scary feeling, and not just limited to university students; J.P.’s struggle to understand how life as a whole works is something that a lot of us can relate to.

All in all, Fresh Meat is an excellent (if occasionally mildly unrealistic) look at student life in the early 21st century. It captures both the soaring highs — the excitement of meeting new people and striking up relationships that may last the rest of your life; the nights out that seem like the most enjoyable, fun times ever — and the crippling lows — mounting debt; loneliness; the uncertainty of your (and everyone else’s) future — and in the process manages to depict a collection of flawed but interesting, likeable characters as they work through one of the most turbulent periods in their respective lives.

2465: Keijo!!!!!!!!

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I watched the first episode of a new anime called Keijo!!!!!!!! today. This is an anime that I became aware of after Kotaku did one of its sadly predictable outraged articles about, dubbing it “deplorable”. (After that, a number of people I know actually watched it, and had good things to say about it.)

“I don’t care that it’s well-animated,” writes the apparent latest “name to avoid” on Kotaku, Cecilia D’Anastasio. “I don’t care that the women have discernible personalities—no cookies for you. It is beside the point that Keijo!!!!!!!! was previously a manga. It could have died in obscurity. Now it’s on Crunchyroll.”

But what has got this angry young woman so infuriated? Well, here’s the premise: Keijo is a fictional sport somewhat akin to sumo wrestling, only on platforms floating on water. The aim of a Keijo match is to be the last one standing; if you fall into the water or touch the platform with anything other than your feet, you lose. It is a contact sport, but you are only allowed to touch other competitors with either your arse or your chest. In other words, it’s Dead or Alive XTreme’s “Butt Battle” taken to the next level.

Keijo!!!!!!!! is a sports anime through and through, focusing on protagonist Nozomi as she strives to realise her dreams and be the best at a sport she has come to love. Like most sports anime, there’s a heavy element of exaggerated action in there, with the Keijo battles themselves incorporating all sorts of physically improbable/impossible stunts, including a girl who is so fast she can smack people in the jaw with her arse and knock them out before they even have time to react to her presence.

I’ve only seen the first episode so far, but it’s already clear that each of the cast members introduced are there for different reasons. Nozomi is there as the typical “underdog” that we’re supposed to root for through the series, and she’s a likeable, spunky character that sits well in the lead role. Besides her, we have the older woman that everyone looks up to, the “rival”, the clumsy idiot, the shy one (who is inevitably going to “snap” at some point, since she was already showing signs of it when Nozomi got a bit too close for comfort in this episode) and plenty of others besides.

There’s a wide variety of different personality types on display — and a wide variety of body types, too, unusually for anime that focuses on female characters. Nozomi is relatively “normal” in stature; her best friend is small but with a formidable butt; her comrade from trials is a tall, muscular young woman and their instructor — dubbed “The Siren” — is a rather portly mature woman who would doubtless be a formidable opponent in a Keijo match; the first episode ends just as Nozomi and her classmates are preparing for their first training session with her.

Inevitably, given the subject matter, there’s a fair amount of fanservice going on, but any lingering boob or booty shots come during the Keijo matches themselves, which kind of makes sense, given that’s where the “action” is, so to speak. Outside of the Keijo matches, we get to know the girls themselves and see that, so far, they all appear to be well-defined, likeable characters that I’d certainly like to know more about.

Keijo!!!!!!!! may not be an entirely original concept — aside from the fictional sport that it’s themed around, the show seems to follow the standard “sports anime” formula fairly closely — but it proceeds with style, charm and so many likeable characters that I find myself wondering quite how joyless you have to be to dub it in any way “deplorable”.

But then, if you read D’Anastasio’s article you’ll see that the sort of person who does think Keijo!!!!!!!! is “deplorable” isn’t exactly the sort of person who seems willing to even attempt to engage with it or see what’s really going on. Much easier to judge it purely on its premise than to actually do some research, after all.

Sigh. One day we’ll have “critics” who actually care about their jobs… maybe.

2448: Taskmaster

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Freeview TV channel Dave is best known for being the home of endless repeats of BBC shows such as Top Gear, QI and Mock The Week, but in the last few years it’s been putting out some pretty solid original programming, too. Aside from the excellent Go 8-Bit, which I’ve talked about previously, there’s been an unscripted chat show fronted by Alan Davies, which made for surprisingly compelling viewing thanks to the candid conversations that unfolded; there’s currently a new series of Red Dwarf running which doesn’t appear to suck; and there’s a show I only discovered a few days ago called Taskmaster. It’s the latter I’d like to talk about today.

Taskmaster, one of several programmes on Dave that began as an Edinburgh Fringe production, is an unusual show in that it’s set up a bit like a panel show, only it’s the same “guests” each time over the course of a whole series, while the show is presented by Greg Davies playing an exaggerated version of himself, accompanied by the show’s creator Alex Horne playing a meek, sycophantic version of himself, a good foil to Davies’ mock arrogance. In the first series, which I’m currently watching, the lineup of guests includes Frank Skinner, Romesh Ranganathan, Tim Key, Roisin Conaty and Josh Widdicombe, who all happen to be some of my very favourite current comedians as well as regulars on the panel show circuit.

As the name suggests, Taskmaster revolves around tasks — specifically, Davies setting his guests a series of ridiculous challenges and then acting as omnipotent judge and jury over the results. The tasks are many and varied, including identifying the contents of a pie “without breaching the pie”, emptying an entire bath of water without pulling out the plug, producing a video that when played backwards appears to depict something incredible, and high-fiving a 55 year old member of the public as quickly as possible before the other contestants.

There’s a clear element of things being staged a bit — Key is usually set up to “cheat” in the challenges in one way or another, for example, while Ranganathan’s shtick is to get absolutely furious at him for breaking the rules — but this doesn’t hurt the show at all. Because the five guests represent such a broad spectrum of attitudes and approaches to comedy ranging from Skinner’s middle-aged calmness to Conaty’s energetic ditziness, the challenges can all unfold in a variety of ways. During a task in which the cast were challenged to eat as much watermelon as they could in a short amount of time, for example, Widdicombe thought things through before entering the room (and thus starting the clock) by finding a knife and spoon, then proceeding to very politely slice the melon then eat it a mouthful at a time, while Ranganathan simply picked up the melon and hurled it at the floor, shattering it into countless pieces which he then had to pick up from the floor and eat.

The challenges are frequently physical and slapstick, but never quite cross the line into “gross-out” territory; the closest it came to genuine unpleasantness was following Ranganathan’s melon-eating episode, where he ended up coughing a fair amount of it back up afterwards, but this wasn’t dwelled upon. Instead, the atmosphere is very much one of a group of friends setting silly tasks for one another, knowing full well that one of them is going to cheat, one of them isn’t going to be very good at it, one of them is a bit old for this shit and so on.

It’s been a real pleasant surprise to discover Taskmaster, and if you’re looking for something entertaining to watch I can highly recommend it, particularly if you’re a fan of Davies in full-on “Mr Gilbert” mode. You can watch it online here, though those outside the UK may need to dick around with VPNs and whatnot to convince the site that you’re a proud Brit.

2440: Baffled by Food

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Andie’s been watching a show called Great British Menu, and that show frustrates me in a number of ways. Firstly, it’s one of many, many shows that overuses the “Great British” thing. It’s okay to just say “British” sometimes. (You definitely don’t need to say it at all when talking about the “great British public”. It’s just “the public”.)

The main way it frustrates me, however, is I just don’t understand the appeal of the food these people are cooking. The show claims to celebrate the “total transformation of British cuisine during the Queen’s historic reign” (and they don’t let you forget that, repeating it roughly eleven thousand times each episode) but all I see is food that has become less about, well, food and more about, as they put it “theatre”.

I’m a simple man when it comes to food. I like a good ham, egg and chips. I like a chilli. I like a spaghetti bolognese. I like a steak. I like a good roast dinner. Those are all good dishes that taste nice. They may be “uninteresting” to the refined palate, but they do fine by me, and more importantly, they are easily scalable according to how hungry you are and how many people you’re catering for.

The “total transformation of British cuisine during the Queen’s historic reign”, meanwhile, seems to be all about compressing and pureeing everything, then sticking it in a box with some dry ice underneath so the plate of food ends up resembling a rather sparsely populated ’80s rock concert more than, well, a plate of food.

One of the things the chefs on the show are fond of doing is offering “a new take on [x]”. In the last episode I saw, there was “a new take on bacon and eggs”, and “a new take on Eton Mess”. Again, both of those things are fine as is. I certainly don’t need an onion puree and an onion tuile, whatever the fuck that is, with my bacon and eggs — even if I did like onion, which I don’t. And I definitely don’t need my Eton Mess to be “interactive” by being hidden inside a meringue shaped like a cricket ball.

I don’t know. I’m probably just being grumpy about this, although I have had food with “theatre” and enjoyed it — when I went to the Ninja restaurant in New York, the food there was served with plenty of theatrics and dry ice, but importantly, they gave you an actually decent plate of food as well. The stuff the chefs on Great British Menu come up with looks like something you’d serve as a starter to a Spartan.

If this is how British cuisine has transformed during the Queen’s historic reign, then I’m just grateful that the local chippy is still open for business.

2421: Go 8-Bit

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A new TV show launched on well-known Freeview channel Dave this evening: Dara O’Briain’s Go 8-Bit.

It’s a type of show we haven’t seen since the days of GamesMaster, only now everyone who used to watch GamesMaster is in their 30s and 40s and enjoys knob gags. Yes, it’s a show that focuses primarily on competitive computer game challenges.

A bit of cursory research reveals that it’s actually an adaptation of a live show also called simply Go 8-Bit, the creation of Steve McNeil and Sam Pamphilon, who take the role of regulars on the TV incarnation. O’Briain occupies the host’s chair, while McNeil and Pamphilon each have one special guest each — in the case of the first episode, topical comedian Susan Calman and England goalkeeper David James, both of whom are proud gamers in their own right. The cast is rounded out with the inclusion of journalist and podcaster Ellie Gibson, who has contributed to Eurogamer on numerous occasions in the past.

O’Briain is a natural fit for the show’s host, because his enjoyment of video games is well-documented, usually using this still-entertaining six year old clip from Live at the Apollo as evidence:

He’s proven himself to be a capable host of a variety of different shows over the past few years, ranging from the topical Mock the Week to the educational Science Club. His role on Go 8-Bit is, as you might expect, closer to the former than the latter, and for the historical and cultural context and significance of the games covered on each show, he defers to Gibson, who is the resident “expert” — she’s the show’s Richard Osmond to O’Briain’s Alexander Armstrong, for those who watch the surprisingly addictive Pointless.

The first episode featured a pleasingly diverse mix of titles, beginning with classic puzzler Tetris, continuing with Chuckie Egg, then on to TekkenStar Wars Battlefront (the new one) and closing proceedings with a custom version of Bust-a-Move specifically created for the show, and for use with the custom Makey Makey controller, a kit which can turn anything which conducts electricity into a game or computer controller. Since their custom version of Bust-a-Move was entitled Bust-a-Moob, the custom peripherals attached to the Makey Makey were, as you might expect, human beings — specifically, an old man with an impressive beard sporting a questionable Dr. Robotnik cosplay; an old lady with an even more questionable Chun Li cosplay; a skinny, hairy dude in his pants forming a rough approximation of Zangief; and, um, a Cher impersonator.

The show made for genuinely enjoyable entertainment. The banter between O’Briain and the guests was amusing, and the trash-talk during the games was fun. It was also wise to focus the show around people who are enthusiastic about games but not necessarily good at them, too, because this made for some hilarious sights, such as an epic Tekken match largely decided by the old faithful sweep-kick to the shins move over and over and over again. There could be value in a show about e-sports professionals playing one another, of course, but it wouldn’t be Go 8-Bit; it would be an altogether more serious affair, and a scene that is already pretty well covered by the online streaming scene rather than television.

The show was, so far as I’m concerned, a resounding success: genuinely amusing, entertaining to watch, even for non-gamers, and just enough tidbits of gaming history to keep enthusiasts happy, too. And best of all, it wasn’t trying to be cool, young, dudebro or in any way hip — it understands that a significant chunk of the gaming audience these days is over 30, perhaps because most of the people involved with it are over 30.

It’s not, by any means, an in-depth documentary about the history of gaming, but it’s not trying to be — it’s simply a new format of show that, as I say, we haven’t really seen anything like since GamesMaster. The only thing I’d change, if anything, would be the slightly cringe-inducing big deal they make out of their rotating stage every time they spin it through 90 degrees so the players can face the game screen at the back of the stage, but that might just be me being a miserable old git.

That aside, it was a great show, and one that I look forward to tuning in to watch each week.

Go 8-Bit is on Dave on Thursday nights at 10pm UK time. You can find out more and watch the recently aired first episode here. (You may need to fiddle around with VPNs and whatnot if you’re watching from outside the UK.)