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Girls: S6E2 – Hostage Situation

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“Downright intolerable.” “Frankenstein’s monster of our own creation.” Just a couple of crystalised terms coined about writer, hellraiser and Girls creator, Lena Dunham. “Why does she insist on being naked, completely out of context?”, one scribe begs – maybe he should read Pin-Up Grrls by Maria Elena Buszek. But if there is a context, he failed to mention what it was. Perhaps, to assume, conventionally attractive? Fat-free? Man-pleasing, to an extent? Clicking insanely on the “Like” button programmed in our collective heads may go against the angry Facebook emoji for some upon seeing a vain, nude and plump Lena Dunham when in character. But she’s been too busy spinning a career out of brash confidence and comic self-loathing to care about context.

The second episode in the sixth and final season of the femmy world of Girls sees Marnie (Allison Williams) in deep frustration, ransacking her memory of doomed relationships and cursing her life in general: “How did I get here? … How the fuck did I end up here?” As in TV, as in life, it’s one of many universal questions. Marnie and Desi (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) are stoking the somewhat dying embers of married life. With a country weekend in Poughkeepsie they drag Hannah along to appease some guilt because they’ve reconciled behind Ray’s back and in Hannah’s eyes, she’s supporting both Marnie’s “sick little tryst” with Desi, and her cycle of lies to Ray (Alex Karpovsky). She briefly escapes the charade to walk into a junk shop and finds a woman who could be mistaken for a highly-stylised, statuesque, Mesopotamian goddess who’s risen, ghostlike, from the ancient city of Nineveh. It’s not as romantic but instead, she has fled the New York diva fashion world to run a humble Poughkeepsie bric-a-brac shop to live “her truth.” She then gifts Hannah with a fine china tea set that becomes a delicate visual motif of the episode – particularly when we’re palpably thrilled watching Desi in a huge meltdown at the country cabin.

In the interim, Shosh (Zosia Mamet) is still on a quest for a dream life that could only be attained by having the dream job. In a trendy space of young professional women and wannabes, Elijah (Andrew Rannells) and Jessa (Jemima Kirke) accompany her to a networking event run by two young, nasally-sounding CEOs who have founded a hip, new and successful company, ‘Jamba Jeans’. As former friends of Shoshanna’s, the CEOs have cracked the life that Shosh craves. But she bails on a holiday with them at the last minute to go with Jessa in the hope of spotting Vincent Gallo!

The closing scene is touching. We see Hannah pick a bloodied Desi up from the ground after his emotional breakdown and he leans on her the way an injured soldier might as they make their way to the car for the drive back to Brooklyn. He’s carrying the weight of his broken spirit on his shoulders and they become the walking wounded. Two imperfect human beings in a perfect frame of darkness; Marnie in the drivers’ seat switches the headlights on to illuminate them, and their crosses to bare. She smiles a gentle smile, with a look that flits knowingly across her face. It’s one of unconditional love and acceptance of human foibles. As in TV, as in life.

 
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Riverdale Chapter 3: Body Double

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Our assertion last week that Riverdale won’t be messing with the core characteristics of its cast of characters may have been premature. While the Big Four may be inviolate, lesser members of the Archie Comics pantheon seem to much more malleable in this side-universe. To wit: Chuck Clayton (Jordan Calloway), for decades a sports-happy aspiring comic book artist, is now a slut-shaming alpha jock, while boy genius Dilton Doiley (Major Kurda) is a hardcore survivalist bent on welding his scout troop into a militia. That’s a bit different.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Episode three kicks off with one of the fastest cliffhanger-reversals in history. When we last saw Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) she was holding her wrists out for the handcuffs and declaring herself guilty. Pretty much immediately she’s clarifying the situation to Mr. Weatherbee (Peter James Bryant) and Sheriff Keller (Martin Cummins): she’s guilty of lying to the authorities, not offing her brother, Jason. Now, at last, we get the heavily telegraphed revelation that Jason wanted to run away from Riverdale forever, and Cheryl was helping him fake his own death in order to get out from under their parents (who we meet briefly this episode, and it’s kind of an anticlimax).

The main thrust of this episode is the aftermath of Veronica’s (Camila Mendes) date with Chuck, who takes to social media to put it about that he gave her a “sticky maple” (apparently that’s a Riverdale thing, with the exact details left to the imagination). Ronnie is livid, but it’s social justice minded Betty (Lili Reinhart), currently in the middle of reviving the Riverdale High school newspaper, The Blue & Gold, who spearheads the counterattack, uncovering a culture of misogyny in the football team and bringing together a number of victims – including Big Ethel, played by none other than Shannon “Barb from Stranger Things” Purser. Revenge being needed, a honeypot is set, with Betty as the bait.

Meanwhile, Jughead’s (Cole Sprouse) investigation of Jason’s death continues, with Betty now promising him column inches in the paper a la Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Juggie takes a run at a witness that we haven’t spent much time with – Dilton, the smartest kid in town, who was nearby with his scout troop when Jason disappeared. After zeroing in on a weak link in Dilton’s khaki-clad foĺlowers, Jug learns that it was Dilton who was responsible for the gunshot everyone heard on the 4th of July – he was drilling his charges for the coming apocalypse because in this version of crazy-smart Dilton Doiley, the emphasis is on crazy. In return for Jughead not telling the cops about his penchant for firearms, Dilton drops a clue on him that the audience already knows – Ms. Grundy’s car was at the river that day, presumably along with Ms Grundy (Sarah Habel) herself. This will in all likelihood swing the focus of the investigation onto her next episode (a promise made, as it turns out, in this ep’s kicker).

Kind of lost in the mix this episode is ol’ Arch (KJ Apa), who manages to parlay Cheryl’s interest in him into an in with Josie and the Pussycats in order to further his music. Plus he manages to convince his dad that music to him is as important as football and deserves equal paternal support, which is all well and good, but pretty vanilla in an episode where Betty is donning a stripper wig and almost drowning a handcuffed Chuck in a hot tub.

And therein lies the problem with Archie as a character, at least in Riverdale; for all that he’s hunked out and had an affair with a teacher, he’s still a good kid trying to do the right thing, and the show is struggling to both dramatise that in a meaningful way and to make it stand out amongst all the other salacious action going on – and this is certainly the most salacious episode so far. The focus on Archie’s music is also sitting awkwardly; the creative process is always difficult to depict in a way that doesn’t come across as mawkish, and the series is definitely failing here. The show’s title certainly implies an ensemble piece, but surely the flagship character shouldn’t be this uninteresting? Give the Andrews kid some agency, for crying out loud.

There’s still plenty to enjoy here, not the least of which is some Melrose Place style histrionics among the parental set – Betty’s eminently bitter mum and the grieving Mrs Blossom damn near have a catfight, for crying out loud, and you get the feeling that some serious sins-of-the-father stuff will come to light before the series is done. There are also plenty of dangling threads left to ruminate on, in addition to the ongoing plot; Betty called Chuck “Jason” when she was torturing him, then claimed to not remember – does mental illness run in the Cooper family? Are we gonna meet the mysterious broken bird, Polly, soon? Still, this feels like a minor but measurable step down from what has gone before.

 
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The Walking Dead S7E9 – Rock in the Road

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[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. I mean, come on, you know how this works]

The first half of season seven was a little rough for The Walking Dead. After the borderline insulting cliffhanger that ended season six, we had one of the most shocking and divisive premiere episodes in the show’s history, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be”. In a particularly sadistic twist Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Glenn (Steven Yeun) were both dispatched in a visceral, shocking fashion by Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his barbed wire-wrapped “vampire bat”, Lucille.

The Greg Nicotero-directed episode alienated a lot of fans and critics but, honestly, this was the episode the season six finale should have been. The problem was after it was all over the rest of the season became wildly uneven and strangely directionless. Grief is hard to define visually and even harder to make entertaining. So we ended up with a lot of choppy, stop/start episodes where Rick (Andrew Lincoln) channeled his mopey inner goth and the other characters just kinda wandered around talking about “stuff and thangs”.

To make matters worse Negan, the villain of the piece, became curiously likeable, especially compared to our inert lead characters. That’s not to say there weren’t some decent moments along the way, but did we really need an entire episode dedicated to Tara? In a show already stuffed with too many characters it was a weird move.

Things seemed to be getting back on track with the mid-season finale, however, as Rick regained his mojo and the band got back together. So can 7B shake the lack of forward momentum and bring the goods? If the first episode back, “Rock in the Road”, is any indication… yes, actually!

Rock in the Road“’s cold open is a curious one. Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) is on watch in Alexandria at night but something is wrong. He goes from reading the bible, to looking tense to raiding the pantry, flogging all the food and drink and piling it into his car. He drives off to destinations unknown. It’s an odd way to reintroduce us to the world of The Walking Dead but we’ll come back to that in a bit.

After the opening titles, we have Rick and crew talking to the gloriously, hideously slimy head of the Hilltop, Gregory (played to perfection by Xander Berkeley who clearly loves being a scumbag) about taking the fight to the Saviors. Gregory is the worst so, naturally, he doesn’t want to join the battle, but he seems okay with Rick doing all the work and him taking all the credit later: classic Gregory. Initially, our heroes are frustrated but when they leave the G-man’s office the “sorghum farmers” of the community express their willingness to fight. Score one for the good guys.

Rick’s visit to the Kingdom is less successful. Rick pitches his united front against the Saviors spiel and initially, King Ezekiel (Khary Payton) is attentive. He tells the band to crash over and he’ll let them know in the morning. In that time we get to see a little more of the idyllic existence at the Kingdom: a community that, for the most part, is unaware of the backdoor deal they have going with Negan.

The Kingdom, in many ways, represents the better, more optimistic version of Alexandria and society in general in the zombie apocalypse. King Ezekiel reads the “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King to children as a bedtime story, which is wholly mawkish yet utterly charming. He’s the kind of man who teaches amputee children archery and raises crops. Despite this, or perhaps because he doesn’t want to lose hope, the King says no to Rick. He offers Daryl asylum (which Daryl accepts with a classic Norman Reedus grumpy glare) but says he will not fight. It’s a bummer but it would be surprising if the King and Shiva (Ezekiel’s tiger) don’t join the fight down the road a spell, they just need some more convincing.

This brings us to the episode’s best moment: the explosive roadblock. Rick and crew come across a Savior-rigged stretch of freeway where an explosively booby-trapped length of high tensile wire is stretched between two cars. The gang disarm the explosives with Rosita (Christian Serratos) doing most of the work (because that’s something she can do now, I guess?) but just as the last stick of dynamite has been grabbed a massive horde of zombies descends. Rick and Michonne (Danai Gurira) manage to hot wire the trap cars and drive headfirst into the undead herd, the wire tearing the stinking shamblers asunder in a splattery cloud of limbs and gore – and it is amazing.

This is the kind of gloriously gory and slightly silly stuff The Walking Dead should be about. Fighting obstacles, problem-solving and outrageously over-the-top gore realised by Greg Nicotero, who himself learned the art of zombie dispatch at the feet of the master, Tom Savini, during the filming of George Romero’s Day of the Dead. To be honest, I watched this sequence a half dozen times and will probably do so some more, it’s cathartic and fun, something The Walking Dead should be more often.

The band arrives back in Alexandria just to have the Saviors appear looking for Daryl. Led by Simon (Steven Ogg aka Trevor from GTA V) the visit is brief and comparatively cordial (just a few plates smashed, no one shot or gutted – it’s progress!) but full of potential menace. It looks like Negan will not forgive the death of Fat Joey soon, so Daryl better beware.

This, of course, brings Rick’s attention to the cold open and the lack of goods in the pantry. Rosita figures Gabriel is just a dick and has flogged the food and done a runner but Rick refuses to believe it and finds a clue in Gabriel’s diary, the word “BOAT”.

Rick and the gang investigate, looking for the missing padre, but before you can say “ongoing mystery” a band of scruffy-looking cultist types, armed with spiked weapons, surround our heroes and Rick, somewhat inexplicably, breaks into a big smile.

So who are these grimy newcomers? Yet another group? The post-apocalyptic version of Scientologists? More cannibals? Hopefully, we’ll find out more next week.

Overall “Rock in the Road” is a pacey, intriguing course correction for season seven of The Walking Dead. Honestly, the wire vs zombies sequence is worth the price of admission alone, but the general sense of cautious optimism of the episode echoes my own. Hopefully, the back half of this season can continue the upward trend and stay focused on characters we care about, doing things that make at least a vague amount of sense.

Oh and if we could kill Negan in a spectacularly gory fashion, that would be great too.

 
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Legion Chapter 1

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Another day, another Marvel series, or so it seems. This one is actually coming to us courtesy of Fox, screen rights holders for all things mutant, and showrunner Noah Hawley, who gave us the exemplary TV iteration of Fargo. It’s his involvement that makes us prick up our ears, promising something a little different from the usual sturm und drang superhero angst and action.

Meet David Haller (Dan Stevens of The Guest and the upcoming Beauty and the Beast), long time mental illness sufferer and recent suicide attempt, currently confined to the Clockwork Psychiatric Hospital. He has a best friend, the substance-abusing, sardonic Lenny (Aubrey Plaza, great) but he doesn’t have a girlfriend – that is until a new inmate, the mysterious Syd (Rachel Keller) comes along, and David falls hard. Syd doesn’t like to be touched, and David is fine with that rule, up until Syd gets discharged and…

…well, that would be telling, but something catastrophic happens, resulting in the bulk of the episode being narrated by David under interrogation by a mysterious agent (Hamish Linklater) while nervous SWAT-types stand guard, guns at the ready. As it turns out, David’s visions and delusions of power may not just be symptoms of a troubled mind – or at least, not only that, and there are serious people who would much rather he not figure that out.

The subjectivity of experience seems to be the central thesis of Legion. Syd (whose last name is the rather-on-the-nose Barrett) states it plainly at one point: “What if your problems aren’t all in your head? What if they’re not even problems?” Or, more plainly, what if what makes you special is the same thing that makes you broken – a provocative, potentially dangerous area of exploration that is nonetheless tantalising to anyone who toils in the arts.

We spend a lot of time right in David’s head with him, and that invites the viewer to try and parse what is real and what isn’t, a mode heightened by the episode’s use of a fractured timeline and repeating frightening visions and (presumably) real displays of superhuman power. For a while there the jury is even out on whether Syd is a figment of David’s imagination (the smart money is on No, unless this show is playing a very long and interesting game). There’s more than a touch of Terry Gilliam going on here, with David’s eventual embracing of what could be, by the show’s own lights, insanity, reminiscent of Brazil, and the psychiatric hospital echoing 12 Monkeys. Indeed, that second point of reference is a bit of a problem; the show’s aesthetic edges right up to the precipice of “unbearably precious”, frequently stunningly imaginative in its compositions and colours, but flirting with “twee” a little too often. That this is part of Legion‘s depiction of mental illness is sure to grate on some – a well delivered cliche is still a cliche, and culturally we’re right in the middle of renegotiating how we perceive mental issues – it’d be nice if Legion was the first of the new guard in that respect, not the last of the old.

Thankfully we have some sterling performances to carry us through, chiefly Dan Stevens as Haller, who manages to combine charm, humour, self doubt, fear, keen intelligence and a certain level of outright intimidating power in one package. It’s really a bravura performance – even when the episode is over-egging the pudding with its choices, Stevens is there to anchor it.

Legion falters when it cleaves too closely to the expectations of the superhero/comic book genre. A big rescue/action setpiece closes out the episode, and it’s easily the weakest few minutes so far; we’ve seen this sort of TV-budget action a thousand times before and besides, we know how this is going to end up – the stakes are incredibly low. Our first hour and change in the company of David Haller sees him and us hooked up with a mysterious mentor figure (Jean Smart) and her team of armed and superpowered accomplices – easily the most obvious place for us to land, and a bit of a shame considering what has gone before. Legion isn’t perfect, but it shows a hell of a lot of promise. Hopefully the more workaday genre elements will fall away as we move forward, and we’re left with something really new and unique. We shall see.

 

 
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Imposters

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The risk of Imposters being relegated to the TV-trash basket was high. Heartbreak, revenge, a good-looking chick, pathetic guys who trail after her – the humdrum formula is definitely there. But despite being predicated on almost every imaginable trope in television history, Imposters – at least the first three eps – is a fun disruption of what you’d expect it to be.

Con artist Maddie – also known as Ava, Alice and Saffron (Inbar Lavi) is as beautiful and alluring as she is dangerous. Maddie is a manipulative seductress who charms people into marrying her before making off with their cash (and just enough dirt to blackmail them into shutting up about it). But she runs into trouble when her latest assignment threatens to be derailed after she meets Patrick (Stephen Bishop), a potential – real – love interest.

Further complicating Maddie’s life’s work are three former targets – Ezra (Rob Heaps), Richard (Parker Young) and Jules (Marianne Rendón) – who soon realise they have each been scammed by the same woman and team up to track her down. What they don’t realise is that they must face their own truths and find new versions of themselves along the way in exacting their revenge.

Imposters works for one reason: it’s so typically (laughably) soapy, that it becomes kind of an endearing parody. Whether or not this was a deliberate choice is unclear, but whether it was or wasn’t, it’s funny because the premise, the acting, the writing, the direction, is all a bit silly.

For example, the show’s opening gambit takes place right after gorgeous, French-accented Ava (Maddie, Alice, Saffron et al) cleans out her nice Jewish husband, Ezra, and Ezra tries to kill himself by hanging himself with an extension cord after watching a ‘how-to’ tutorial on YouTube. Now, this would usually be viewed as quite a dark happenstance, right? But Imposters somehow finds the humour in it. And that’s really the caveat of the show – it forces its audience to take part in a bit of schadenfreude.

Imposters walks that fine line between mid-arvo soap opera and lovable dark comedy. It’s no Bojack Horseman, but ultimately it does manage to do ‘cheesy’ in a passably clever way.

 
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Riverdale Chapter 2: A Touch of Evil

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For a comic franchise that started out lily white back in the day, in recent years the Archie books have embraced diversity with gusto, and the new series has taken it even further. Mr Weatherbee (Peter James Bryant), Pop Tate (Alvin Sanders) and all of the Pussycats are African American now, while Reggie Mantle (Ross Butler) is Asian. Most prominently, however, we have at least two LGBTQI characters: fan favourite Kevin Keller (Casey Cott), who is openly gay, and Moose Mason (Cody Kearsley) – and it’s these two who provided last episode’s cliffhanger, stumbling across the corpse of Jason Blossom while canoodling at the river, and revealing that Blossom had been shot, not drowned.

After the plot-heavy pilot episode, “A Touch of Evil” eases off the gas a bit, dealing mainly with the fallout of the body’s discovery. First and foremost, we have Archie (KJ Apa) wrestling with whether or not to tell the authorities that he and Ms Grundy (Sarah Habel) heard a gunshot on the day Jason disappeared, spilling the beans about their illicit affair. Parallel to that, we get Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) playing queen bee, determined that a pep rally go on in the face of the recent tragedy.

The lighter plot machinations allow more time to flesh out some of the relationship dynamics. Betty (Lili Reinhart) and Veronica (Camila Mendes) break up and make up over – who else? – Archie, in the end vowing to never let a boy come between them again (yeah, right). Perhaps more importantly, Archie and Jughead (Cole Sprouse) mend some bridges, and thank god for that – perhaps the most jarring element so far has been the idea that these two seven decade BFFs are on the outs.

Jughead is, of course, our narrator, giving voice to melodramatic voice overs that don’t really add much plotwise but do add a little noir je ne sais quoi. The obvious comparison is Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Brick, with Juggie playing high school detective. Admittedly, at the moment there’s not much detecting going on, but he does see Archie with Grundy, and pushes America’s favourite redhead to do the right thing. He also drops the bombshell that Jason died a week after he disappeared, but the whys and wherefores of that revelation have to wait for next week.

The central mystery aside, we learn a few more bits and pieces along the way, some of which suggest deeper mysteries. Hermione Lodge (Marisol Nichols) is now working as a waitress at Pop Tate’s Chock’lit Shoppe – what happened to the bagful of money from last episode? If that’s not in play and finances are tight, how is Veronica getting cupcakes flown in from New York (her apology gifts to Betty are lavish AF)? There’s also a strong suggestion that Polly, Betty’s as-yet-unseen sister, has been institutionalised for her mental issues, leaving Betty’s mother, Alice (Madchen Amick) bitter, mistrustful – and possibly vengeful?

It’s becoming clear that Jason intended to fake his own death – at one point Cheryl tearfully wails that “…he was supposed to come back!” and she is notably unsurprised to be arrested by Sheriff Keller (Kevin’s dad, apparently) in this episode’s cliffhanger. The question is now raised: what – or who – drove him to that, and what is Cheryl’s involvement?

Cheryl Blossom is turning into a fascinating character, with Madelaine Petsch’s brittle performance letting us see how broken the head cheerleader is under her ice-queen demeanor. You just know there’s going to be some horrible Blossom family history unearthed in the course of the season, some terrible House of Usher stuff, and there are moments when you can see her just screaming on the inside. While almost every other character is more likable – even Reggie, who Archie punches on with this ep in defence of Jughead – Cheryl is easily the most interesting we’ve been introduced to thus far.

Fans of the comics get some iconic treats this ep. Josie (Ashleigh Murray) and the Pussycats cut loose at the pep rally, performing – what else? “Sugar, Sugar”, and we finally see Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica sharing a booth and a couple of milkshakes at Pop Tate’s. It’s the balance between loving nostalgia and lurid, hairpin-turn soap opera histrionics that is making Riverdale enjoyable so far, and hopefully they can keep it up.

 
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Riverdale Chapter One: The River’s Edge

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If your only experience with Archie and the Riverdale gang was the occasional Double Digest thrown your way as a kid  to keep you occupied on a long car trip, this updated take from the CW (Netflix in our neck of the woods) might come as something of a shock. If nothing else, there’s a lot more sex and murder. There’s one openly gay character, one closet case, and one ambiguous sapphic moment. And while Archie (Kiwi actor KJ Apa) isn’t fucking Mr Weatherbee, to paraphrase Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, he is dealing with the aftermath of a summer fling with Miss Grundy (Sarah Habel), the comics’ steely spinster having been re-imagined as someone considerably younger and more attractive.

This isn’t a “dark and gritty” reboot, though – that would be a lazy label to apply. Series writer (and Archie Comics Chief Creative Officer) Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and producer Greg Berlanti (who honchos the CW DC supers shows) have really taken the bull by the horns here, reconfiguring the wholesome, episodic and largely continuity-free teen comics into something that a) might reflect or at least engage with some of the concerns of Young People Today* and b) has enough narrative meat and emotional punch to at least get us through a season or two.

So welcome to Riverdale, a town reeling from the tragic and purportedly accidental death of rich kid, Jason Blossom. His sister, Cheryl (Madelaine Petsch) has no qualms about milking his death for social advantage. Meanwhile, good girl Betty Cooper (Lili Reinhart) nurses a crush on her BFF, Archie – something she has in common with new girl, the wealthy Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes), who is struggling to cope with a downturn in lifestyle after her father was arrested for embezzlement.

In the background lurk a number of mysteries: Archie’s parents (Luke Perry and Molly Ringwald, and if that isn’t bravura casting, then what is?) are separated; Veronica’s mother, Hermione (Marisol Nichols) receives a bag full of cash courtesy of her husband, for reasons yet to be divulged; Usual BFFs Archie and Jughead (Cole Sprouse) are on the outs; and, perhaps most importantly, Betty’s mother (Twin Peaks alum Madchen Amick, and we’ll get to that in a second) harbours a deep grudge against the Blossom family because of the way Jason treated Betty’s sister while thy were dating.

Whew. That’s a lot of plates to keep spinning, but this is a soap opera after all, no matter how glossy it looks. Twin Peaks was a soap opera too, and Riverdale has drawn a number of comparisons, some earned, some trifling – we do get a body in the water before the episode draws to a close, after all. In truth, though, Riverdale is drawing on a number of textual inspirations – that episode title is no mistake, and future eps are named “A Touch of Evil”, “Body Double”, and “The Last Picture Show” – make of that what you will.

For all that “darkness” though, there’s plenty of light here, too. Archie is Archie – a good kid struggling with the usual raft of problems and trying to do right by everyone, including himself. The Betty/Veronica friendship makes sense, as does the B/V/A love triangle – in fact, this might be the most sympathetic representation of Veronica Lodge in the history of the character, in that regard. The characters we’re supposed to like are likable, and that counts for a lot. If Riverdale manages to not descend into completely overwrought melodrama – always a risk with these kind of things – it looks like it’ll be a nice place to visit for a few seasons.

We definitely need more Jughead, though.

*Sex, I’m given to understand.

 
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Sherlock S4E3: “The Final Problem”

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Warning: The following review contains spoilers.

Sherlock is over so quickly isn’t it? One week you’re celebrating its return and less than a month later, you’re waving it bon voyage. And after the last two weeks of plotting, it’s no surprise the fervour people had for this – the final episode of Season 4 and, potentially, the last episode of Sherlock for a very long time.

It’s little wonder that creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, writing together as they did for The Abominable Bride, wanted to give their supporters something to wave their flags to. Think of The Final Problem as the Greatest Hits of Sherlock, with choice cuts of your favourite moments repackaged into a handy 90-minute feast. Sadly, as pleasant as it is to see the two writers clearly having fun in their sandbox, the real problem for the viewer was trying to work out how the two previous episodes could justify such a lukewarm finale.

Having revealed a third Holmes sibling and putting the life of John Watson (Martin Freeman) in danger last week, we were given a rather rushed resolution as to the Doctor’s fate.

Apparently, Eurus (Sian Brooke), Sherlock’s evil sister, had merely stunned Watson and run away. An impossibility according to brother Mycroft (Gatiss) who insisted that she was trapped within a super-prison by the name of Sherrinford which was stuck on an island out to sea. All of which was a massive surprise to Sherlock, who had completely forgotten he’d ever had a sister. If that part sounds like a tough pill to swallow, The Final Problem produced a number of other headscratchers that unfortunately lowered the plausibility of its narrative.

Things started off strong with a small girl waking up on a plane in which all its passengers and crew had passed out. Answering a ringing phone in the hopes of calling for help, she’s greeted by the voice of the late consulting criminal, Moriarty (Andrew Scott). Elsewhere, having escaped the detonation of 221b Baker Street – another one of Eurus’ games – the Brothers Holmes and Watson break into Sherrinford to understand how the meddling sister is able to break out.

Before continuing, it should be noted that Sherlock has dipped its toe in the surreal before. Season 2’s The Hounds of Baskerville, for instance, attributed its hell hound to psychotropic gas. Indeed, the very idea of Sherlock himself is a flight of fancy in the real world. However, The Final Problem was something else.

Sherlock_s4_Ep3_006-strictly-embargoed-for-publication-until-0001-hrs-GMT-10.01.2017

As well as being superior to her brothers intellectually, Eurus was shown to be able to ‘reprogramme’ those around her and, as such, had unbelievably managed to take over her own asylum, giving her free passage to leave her island prison as and when she felt like it. Spurred on by a meeting with Moriarty several years prior – in a hilarious cameo by Scott –  she had decided to take her vengeance out on Sherlock for reasons that never feel satisfactory. Over the last few seasons, a lot has been made of the name Redbeard and its influence on Sherlock’s persona. Previously thought of to be a beloved pet, the final twist turned out to be something much sinister and had led to Eurus’ incarceration. Gatiss and Moffat try to turn what would be a childhood trauma for Sherlock into a reason for his thirst for solving mysteries. But as an attempt to give Sherlock back his humanity, it just didn’t convince.

Neither did the system of Saw-like problems Eurus put her siblings through, with a different room in Sherrinford leading to a new and deadly conundrum. As Eurus pulled her brothers’ strings, the continuing train of thought was ‘How can she afford to do all this? Literally, who is funding this person?’ and ‘Does anybody remember John had a baby daughter?’ When the girl on the plane was revealed to be Eurus in a mind palace of her own waiting for Sherlock’s approval, The Final Problem revealed itself to be trying too hard.

Thank heavens then for the positives that didn’t make this a complete washout. Take for example Molly, played by Louise Brealey. Criminally underused this season, Brealey brought much needed emotion in a scene that saw her bare her soul to Sherlock, whilst being an unwitting pawn in Eurus’s schemes. As we cheer on Sherlock’s sociopathic qualities, we often forget how they can deeply cut others. It was a wonderful moment, only somewhat surpassed by Mrs Hudson thrashing around to Iron Maiden in her slippers.

As the dust settled, Sherlock ended, as perhaps it was always going to, with a massive press of the reset button that allowed Gatiss and Moffat to bring a close to their 6-year story in a deserved self-congratulatory tone, whilst tentatively leaving the tiniest of margins for a possible return. And whilst this wasn’t the ending some of us will have been expecting, the journey to get this far has at least consisted of more highs than lows, with a heavy vein of experimentation throughout. For that reason alone, Sherlock is still, as a whole, a quality British drama.

 
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Sherlock S4E2: “The Lying Detective”

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Warning: The following review contains spoilers.

After a dramatic and somewhat overstuffed opening, “The Lying Detective”, written by Steven Moffatt, sees Sherlock return to a more streamlined approach with a storyline that would, were this Law and Order: SVU, be promoted as being “ripped straight from the headlines.” However, lets step back a bit.

After the events of “The Six Thatchers”, Team Sherlock is well and truly fractured. Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) has holed himself up in 221b and presently sleeps at the bottom of a syringe. John (Martin Freeman), meanwhile, is seeing a therapist to cope with the death of his wife Mary, who he tried to cheat on in the last episode. Whilst John is “happy” to beat himself for his present behaviour – including not sleeping, heavy drinking and ignoring his daughter Rosie – he struggles to admit that he regularly converses with his deceased wife, Mary (Amanda Abbington). Yes, Mary is back. Sort of. And her “haunting” of John is an engaging way of letting us watch him unravel his thoughts. When Mary chastises him for being aggressive to others, he’s effectively berating himself; encouraging himself to make amends and move on. It also elicits great performances from Freeman and Abbington. Elsewhere, Cumberbatch gets to flex his acting muscles as a Sherlock that’s spiraling the drain.

Director Nick Hurran has a field day as he sews together Sherlock’s drug-addled memories – including hallucinations and walking across the ceiling like Lionel Ritchie – into a coherent interview with potential client, Faith, with whom he spends the night walking through London. Faith has a very famous father- entrepreneur and philanthropist, Culverton Smith, played with relish by Toby Jones (Capote) – whom she believes wants to kill someone.

Where the narrative eventually takes us is so much darker.

There’s no real way to break this character down without acknowledging the debt it pays to the extremely problematic Jimmy Saville, the late British television presenter whose façade as an eccentric fundraiser hid a much darker lifestyle. Like Saville, Culverton is carried on the shoulders of a prominent broadcaster and routinely boasts of famous friendships. Aside from Jones’ performances, part of the reason Culverton is so monstrous is because he reflects someone in the public eye.

After Sherlock publicly calls Culverton out on Twitter – whilst roping in a reluctant Watson in the process – “The Lying Detective” revealed its greatest strength: Sherlock, convinced of his deductions, locking verbal horns with a man who is so confident he can get away with murder he doesn’t even try that hard to hide his guilt. With a bold northern accent and spectacularly yellow teeth, Jones was the second best performance of the episode. The first? Well, that belongs to Una Stubbs as the put-upon landlord, Mrs Hudson. From tying up Sherlock and speeding him off to Watson in her Aston Martin, to standing up to the ominous Mycroft all in the name of her surrogate sons, Stubbs easily gifts “The Lying Detective” with its finer moments.

Yet, as strong as “The Lying Detective” is, particularly when stacked up against the previous episode, when all the various story threads finally dovetailed it only just about sticks its landing. Whilst touring the hospital Culverton financed, for which he grimly boasts he has the keys, Sherlock’s sanity appears to finally crack under so much drug use. Summoning Faith to the hospital in order that she can confront her father, Sherlock is startled to meet someone who is not the woman he spent the evening with. Producing a scalpel, he has to be subdued by John, who uses the opportunity to take out his anger on the consulting detective’s face. Admitting that he’s not well, Sherlock agrees to be taken care of in the hospital where, left alone, he is visited by a murderous Culverton – an act which is stopped by John who, having found the DVD left by Mary the week before, realises that this is all part of a plan to drag him out of his funk. Whilst Culverton is a true monster, Sherlock has been in control the whole time. It’s all a bit convenient, but it does later lead to a rather touching moment between the two men when John confesses his “affair” to both his friend and the imaginary Mary.

But Moffatt hasn’t finished there, and during a therapy session, John finds out his therapist is also the fake Faith from earlier, as well as the woman he pursued in “The Six Thatchers”. All three are the disguises of Eurus, the forgotten and apparently evil sister of Mycroft and Sherlock, played by Sian Brooke! Having revealed her true identity, she promptly shoots John, leaving his fate unknown.

Until the finale, “The Final Problem,” surfaces it’s hard to tell how this Scooby-Doo moment will settle; either becoming in hindsight a masterstroke of a twist or undoing all the good work that came before it. Only time will tell!

 
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Sherlock S4E1: “The Six Thatchers”

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Warning: This review contains spoilers.

Let it never be said that Sherlock fans aren’t patient. 2016’s New Year’s special, “The Abominable Bride”, arrived two years after Season Three’s revelation that uber-villain Moriarty might be alive and Sherlock being sent into exile after killing a blackmailing media mogul. Ostensibly set around the gag of “What would it be like if modern Sherlock was more like old fashioned Sherlock?”, the special turned out to be a way to advance the plot from Season Three. And by advance the plot, we mean Sherlock got off the plane that had carted him away and decided Moriarty was definitely dead.

Cut to 2017 and finally proper Sherlock is back. But has it been worth the wait?

Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) certainly seems to think so as he’s reintroduced back in the saddle and, by his own admission, “high on life.” The murder that saw him packed off has been dealt with by his brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) with the judicious application of edited CCTV footage. But what of the deceased Moriarty whose visage cropped up on every TV screen in London? Well, “The Six Thatchers”, written by Gatiss and brilliantly directed by Rachel Talalay (Tank Girl and Doctor Who), won’t do much to scratch that itch. Instead, after a brief but entertaining montage of Sherlock solving low-level crimes in the hopes that it will lead to a larger discovery, the plot becomes concerned with the connection between John Watson’s wife Mary (Amanda Abbington) and the destruction of six busts of Margaret Thatcher at different venues.

Introduced in Season Three as the fiancée of Watson (Martin Freeman), Mary was quickly revealed to have been an intelligence agent with a murky past; which was more agency than Arthur Conan Doyle ever gave her literary counterpart. Now married with child, her life is upturned by the revelation that a former colleague is out for revenge, after being left for dead during a failed hostage rescue six years previously. Back and very much alive, Ajay (Sacha Dhawan) was destroying busts of Thatcher in the hopes of finding a USB he had hidden in one all that time ago, which contained information that would lead him to Mary. This in turn led to Mary going Lara Croft and travelling the globe to entice Ajay out.

If it sounds complicated, then that’s because it kind of is.

Whilst even an average episode of Sherlock is something to look forward to, there’s a feeling “The Six Thatchers” was trying to pack too much in. Perhaps the blame can be lain at the feet of Sherlock’s criminally short seasons of three feature length episodes. Story arcs flow a lot better when there’s more episodes for them to do so. As such, Season Four got off to a shaky start as it attempted to address the loose threads of Season Three, whilst setting the path for future episodes.

Whilst Sherlock was relishing the opportunity to pick apart Mary’s secrets, it turned out her hubby had some of his own. Fatherhood apparently had set in place an uncharacteristic ennui in the doctor that led him to contemplating an affair with a feisty redhead he’d met on the bus. Although he eventually gives up the chase, we will never know if he would have ever confessed to Mary his dalliances as, alas, “The Six Thatchers” saw Mary slain before the credits could roll.

And not by the vengeful Ajay, but by aged government receptionist Vivian (Marcia Warren) in a move that managed to prick Sherlock’s bravado. Having worked out that she was the one who had compromised the hostage rescue for her own shady gains, he cornered the receptionist with Mary and the police by his side. After confessing to her crimes, Vivian decides that if she’s going down she’s taking Holmes with her. Step forward – literally – Mary, who takes the bullet for Sherlock, thus ending her own life.

As Mary lies bleeding on the floor, imparting her last words to her husband and Sherlock, Abbington, Freeman and Cumberbatch should be applauded for ensuring the whole scene stayed on the right side of melodrama. Sherlock, as a show, struggles with the long game, narratively speaking, but it says a lot for all involved that Mary’s death actually felt like it meant something. Even if sacrificing herself for Sherlock felt a bit off. Yes, this is a show about Sherlock Holmes, but a character’s fate shouldn’t have to solely depend on him. She even left him a DVD with instructions on what to do after her death. Perhaps a better way for Mary to depart would have been at the hands of Ajay. Either way, she chose to go out on her own terms which is befitting her overall character.

With Mary dead, Sherlock stunned and John deflecting his own guilt onto his friend, Sherlock Season Four looks set to follow a dark path indeed. Let’s just hope the rush to pack in everything into this episode, including the kitchen sink, was worth it.