Recently watched, that is…
Vikings Season 2
It’s as if a set of TV Executives sat down with the express purpose of making a show Joe Abercrombie would really like, and they largely succeeded. Love, hate, violence and pagan strangeness abound as Scandinavia’s shiftiest opportunist, Ragnar Lothbrok, becomes embroiled not only in Viking blood-feuds but Saxon politics. I doubt they’d make any high claims of historical accuracy but there’s vastly more authenticity on the bone than one might expect from a Hollywood treatment of the material and lashings of drama, shocks, shield-walls and wonderfully strange, inscrutable, and morally dubious characters. There’s a real stylistic boldness creeping into this second season as well, with gripping dreamlike sequences and whole episodes in which Ragnar barely speaks, communicating all that is necessary though his trademark unblinking wonky death-grin.
Orphan Black Season 1
Whenever Tatiana Maslany isn’t on screen this sfnal thriller looks decidedly wobbly, but she’s usually on screen at least once, and often more than twice, in a barnstorming multiple performance as a set of clones caught up in a sinister conspiracy. The first few episodes are driven by breakneck pacing and the dialogue can seem pretty creaky, but soon enough we get almost soap-operatic glimpses beneath the skins of the characters. You never for a moment doubt you’re watching a set of entirely distinct people who happen to look the same.
Hell on Wheels Season 3
I’m a sucker for a western, and I enjoyed the first and especially the second season of this railroad-based effort in which an ex-confederate soldier hell-bent on revenge gets drawn into the efforts of the Union-Pacific to cross the continent with ensuing political shenanigans, gunslinging, fist-fighting, Indian entanglements and moral ambiguities. This third season was a bit of a disappointment, though. Still some strong characters but while the pace was always full steam ahead before here things slowed to a crawl, with an awful lot of circling around, great attention given to sub-threads that never amounted to much, and a slightly baffling turn at the end. I’d watch another but, boy, they need to get themselves together and strike for the Pacific.
House of Cards Season 1
This is just as great as it looks on paper, a re-invention of the classic British series based on the books by Margaret Thatcher’s ‘baby-faced hit man’ Michael Dobbs (who is an exec on the US show). Ian Richardson’s supremely manipulative tory whip Francis Urquhart has become Kevin Spacey’s supremely manipulative majority house whip Frank Underwood, and the skullduggery has been updated for the mobile-phone and internet generation, but otherwise the basic formula of ruthless political manoeuvrings translates easily from Whitehall to Washington, along with the central character’s almost Shakespearian soliloquies to camera, coaxing the audience very much into complicity. Kevin Spacey makes for a hugely charismatic and likeable Machiavellian megalomaniac but there are plenty more strong performances, including Robin Wright majestic as Underwood’s equally ruthless wife. Well into Season 2 now and enjoying it just as much, particularly a masterfully executed shock in the first episode.
Suits Seasons 1&2
This was a very pleasant surprise, I must say. Hot-shit doesn’t-play-by-the-rules New York corporate lawyer Harvey Specter is asked to interview for a new associate and the only candidate who interests him turns out to be a genius drop-out who wandered into the interview to avoid the cops when a drug deal went south. Sounds like a recipe for cheese and indeed the pilot is pretty wobbly, but the writing quickly finds its feet and I ended up burning through two seasons of this in nothing flat. It won’t change your world but it’s hugely watchable, with some zinging lines and some great characters, especially Harvey’s bitter, pedantic, tragic, weirdly loveable nemesis Louis Litt. There is a tendency to run over and over the same ground, though, with endlessly will-they-won’t-they relationships that nearly do then don’t, and rivalries that become friendships that become rivalries that become friendships that etc. etc. At some point you have to crap or get off the pot and I wonder if they can get enough variety into the formula to keep it fresh.
Arrow Season 1
Enjoyable enough superhero hokum based on the Green Arrow comics, in which pampered rich boy Oliver Queen is shipwrecked on a mysterious island and returns after 5 years with superhuman powers of archery, handsomeness, looking troubled, and working out, powers which he is determined to use for (kind of) good in ridding his city of a deadly conspiracy and etc. etc. I guess they’re going for a comic book over-the-top shininess but the result is that everyone is so improbably pretty they all end up looking strangely average. Attempts to complicate the standard superhero narrative are somewhat hamstrung by, for example, our hero’s habit of ruthlessly slaughtering three dozen bodyguards who one supposes are just doing their job before he lets their malefactor boss off with a harsh warning. Still, an enjoyable, if relatively predictable, way to while away a few hours…