TV: Please Like Me season 2 (2014)

creators: Josh Thomas & Matthew Saville
language: English and a bit of Thai
length: 10 episodes of about 25 minutes each
finished watching on: 1 May 2017
previous seasons: season 1

I can’t remember why I took such a long break from this series – there were a few months when I didn’t watch it at all, before picking it up again sometime this year. But I still get a strong impulse to watch it whenever I cook food, perhaps a habit, but perhaps also influenced by the importance of food in the series (they provide motifs for a lot of episodes and the episodes are named after food).

Basically, the series has found its feet here, but I feel it’s still far too full of cringe humour for my liking at the end of the day. Josh, the main character, is insufferable, to be honest, constantly nagging other characters for attention and validation.

I like how it deals very frankly and directly with mental illness. But it often goes from these moments straight back into something very cringeworthy for comedy’s sake, and perhaps back again, even ending one episode with the surprise suicide of a side character – I said in the review of the last season that I was annoyed that my favourite character had been killed off by the show, and this is the same. I think the tone wasn’t consistent in this area. Balance is important.

But it’s got some high points – Josh and his mum in the wilderness of Tasmania was a really nice episode, and I liked the introduction of Arnold, who as far as I know will end up with Josh in the next season.

Despite its negative points, I still identify with a lot of the characters and recognize the situations. I’ll still be continuing with the next season. Soon, perhaps!

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TV: Stranger Things season 1 (2016)

strangerthings1creators: Matt & Ross Duffer
language: English
length: 8 episodes of variable length, 442 minutes total (7 hours and 22 minutes)
finished watching on: 12 September 2016

I was a little late to the game with this one, I guess, but everyone was talking about it this summer. It’s actually set in November, so maybe we should be watching it now, but Netflix apparently likes to release things all at once rather than teasing it out over the course of weeks (which is a blessing and a curse). No, even then it’s a short series and would have been over pretty quickly during the summer.

I usually say that I don’t like horror movies, but I already broke that edict watching such things as The Descent recently. The horror in this is reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth, actually, although I remember finding that difficult to watch and not enjoying it much. In this series it’s the first episode that is the most creepy, as once we get used to the setting and characters it takes the edge off the scary elements, even as they ramp up towards the end of the series. I actually found Orphan Black creepier this year, perhaps because there’s a persistent sense of threat in that series.

I don’t think I need to summarize Stranger Things too much, because I think most people have seen it already, but just in case, it’s the story of a boy who goes missing, and the people – his family and friends mainly – who look for him. With supernatural stuff thrown in. It’s too complicated to explain beyond that without giving spoilers. That said, I’m pretty much going to do just that. So if you haven’t watched it yet, I’d suggest doing that before reading the rest of this.

The series is set in the 1980s, and takes great pains to show us so. This is to do with the creators’ upbringing mainly, but also draws to mind classics such as E.T. and other horroresque or alien children’s movies. A lot of the 80s stuff felt tokenistic, as if to draw a chuckle from modern audiences, like the phones that are connected by wire to the wall, or a lot of the other technology the children use, or indeed can’t use because it hasn’t been invented yet. Walkie-talkies are another good example. But at the same time, they integrated all the stuff well into the story.

Music is also very important, and one leitmotif that often comes up is the song Should I Stay or Should I Go by The Clash – indeed, I’ll never think of the song the same way again. Once we find out about the Upsidedown, and actually see inside the eldritch world, the sound design comes into its own, too.

When I saw the first episode, and there was this giant alien portal in the government compound, I thought they’d given away too many of their cards too early in the show. But as I watched it a bit more, I realized that we really don’t know what’s going on, not really. We’re thrown hints, mere morsels, from time to time, but the monster isn’t, and we don’t understand what’s really going on with the mum’s lights until the final episode, and then you’re like “Ohhhh!”. I had a few theories as to what was going on, but none of them were correct. I think this is a good way to tell good stories.

As for the characters, everyone was a superb actor in this. The kids are all great in it, and really steal the show, and make it what it is. I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised – there are too many cases where the kid actors in something don’t do a good job. They seem to be genuinely nice people too – I hope the fame doesn’t go to their heads. But the teenagers are also important to the story, and Winona Ryder as the haggard mother really puts in a good performance, if slightly over-acted.

And finally, the ending was bittersweet, and I hope good things happen in the next series. So if you’ve gotten this far, tell me your favourite bit. Or go out and watch it if you haven’t already!

TV: Please Like Me season 1 (2013)

plm1creator: Josh Thomas
language: English with a bit of Thai
length: 6 episodes of 28 minutes each
finished on: 7 July 2016

This series was swept up in my quest to consume all LGBT media in the world – it’s been around for a while now and is often recommended by the places that recommend LGBT media, but it was after I came to Japan and I never had easy access to it. I think you can pay for a premium service to watch it online, or something.

I actually started watching it before, but only got a few minutes into the first episode – I think I found the main character, an autobiographical depiction of creator and principal actor Josh Thomas, too awkward and annoying. I still kind of think that, but this time I persevered and got through the first season pretty quickly. I started the second, but I stalled on the third episode or so – I should pick it up again.

The awkwardness doesn’t really let up, though. Josh’s character is one that gets anxious over unimportant things – he also moves robotically. I was at some points internally screaming at him to get over himself.

He has a boyfriend for the majority of the first season, but they’re obviously completely different kinds of people. I instantly distrusted the boyfriend when he outed him to his parents – like, have some respect for your compatriots and understand that you may not know as much about others’ situations as you think. I know it’s a sitcom in which everyone is awkward, but there’s basic gay decorum and this is breaking it. I also found it jarring how quickly he was referred to as a boyfriend. They barely fooled around in the first episode, and in the second they were in a relationship. I think the show was going for something like a slice of life, in this case.

Aside from him, though, I enjoyed the rest of the characters, especially the homophobic aunt, but also the mentally ill mum. I found a lot of them were also true to life. I also enjoyed the series in general, I think (aside from the awkwardness) it was well-observed and the jokes were frequent. And like with a lot of the other things I’ve written about recently, I liked to be reminded that LGBT stuff is becoming more mainstream, to the extent that there are actually TV shows like this at all. When I was growing up there was only Queer As Folk (though I like it, it’s decidedly not suitable for younger teens). Nice to have more variety now. The genre is still a niche, but perhaps that’ll always be the case.

TV: Orphan Black season 4 (2016)

orphanblack4[spoiler alert]
Creators: Graeme Manson & John Fawcett
Language: English
Length: 10 episodes, about 44 minutes each
Finished watching on: 17 June 2016
Previous seasons: 1 | 2 | 3

I was a bit nervous about this show because season 3 had been a bit of a let down, but my fears were very quickly allayed when I watched the first episode – the writing, at the very least, is back on form, and the atmosphere of the show is darker than ever – in fact, compared to the previous seasons, I was surprised at how much dread I felt in each episode.

Fortunately, Allison doesn’t have a ridiculous, irrelevant side plot in this season, and the writers manage to find other ways to make comedy out of the situations – and Donny, since mid-season 3 a member of clone club, plays a much bigger part in the story this time.

The other character Krystal now plays a bigger part too, and I was glad to hear that her character is directly based on the comedy characters in ”PubLIZity”, which has some kind of meme status on the internet and is very funny.

The show also manages to partly redeem itself (and this is a massive spoiler) for making us think that Delphine had died a horrible death – presumably having seen the backlash against the constant murder of lesbian and other LGBT characters, they somehow brought her back to life at the end of the season.

As before, the season leaves off on a massive cliffhanger, as Sarah is I think left for dead having been attacked by Rachel, and as I mentioned, the atmosphere is very dark. But it was miles better than the previous season, and I definitely welcome this return to form. Tatiana Maslany is at the top of her game. Still wondering where they will go from here, though – it has still been getting weirder every single episode!

TV: Brooklyn Nine-Nine season 3 (2015-16)

b99-3creator: Dan Goor & Michael Schur
language: English
length: 23 episodes
finished watching on: 21 April 2016
previous seasons: 1 / 2

I almost thought this season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine was going to go off in a new direction, as at the start of the season, the captain had been sent to a different department and things were in disarray with a series of terrible new captains. How naive – they were back to normal within four episodes. I wouldn’t want to spoil it, but they left off with another cliffhanger on this season, so I fully expect the same next season now.

The writing is still on form with this season, and a lot of the characters have had significant development, although the basic structure of Jake making an ignorant assumption and having been taught the error of his ways by the end of the lesson in a pithy way has not changed.

I like that the show is becoming a bit more popular now, as I’ve started seeing the quotes around the internet. My favourite blog that I followed recently is one that mashes quotes from this show onto gifs from Harry Potter – it works surprisingly well!

So I’ll definitely be continuing with this series. I hope I can find some more stuff to fill the rest of my time now that it’s over for the summer.

TV: Orphan Black season 3 (2015)

orphan-black-season-3-premiereCreators: Graeme Manson & John Fawcett
Language: English
Length: 10 episodes of about 44 minutes
Finished watching on: 21 June 2015

It’s the third season of this show now. I feel like it’s losing the plot a little – that’s not to say that I wasn’t avidly viewing it week-by-week, though. I feel like every season Sarah and her clone buddies defeat the big baddie – in the first season, it was the weird cultists, and in the second, it was the pseudo-Amish – and at the beginning of the next season, there’s a few episodes’ lag while the new season finds its feet and we work out what the protagonists are supposed to be doing.

And this season took a little while longer to get going than its predecessors had. Helena is banished to the Mexican desert under the supervision of creepy “boy clones” (notwithstanding the one transgender male clone that we’ve already met in the previous season, making this moniker factually inaccurate), part of some army experiment. But it’s unclear who they’re working for, at this point. A large portion of the season concerns Sarah trying to work out how to bust her sister out of the prison.

Meanwhile, Alison’s antics – running for local school board elections and starting a drug racketeering business – feel even further removed from reality than they had in previous seasons, and I was getting whiplash whenever the story cut from a more relevant and poignant scene to Alison’s.

Most distressingly, the series has become more openly willing to shake things up from the status quo established in the previous season, and the most notable of those situations was the decimation of Cosima’s relationship with Delphine. Perhaps this is necessary to demonstrate character development of some kind, but it rings hollow in a world where lesbian relationships are regularly not allowed to survive on TV or in movies.

That said, I understand that TV can’t stay in a status quo, or it would stagnate. It’s also good that the season starts to pick up again towards the end, and the climax is satisfactory, if a little strange. Tension still ran high right at the end, even if the ending itself came out of left-field.

There are a few directions in which the show could go from here, next year, and I hope they choose the right one. I’d hate to end up with a show that I couldn’t suspend disbelief for anymore, which (let’s just say) is a distinct possibility. I hope they sort out the relationships of the characters and start answering more of the unanswered questions. I hope that they don’t send Alison careering away from the main arc just for comic relief, as that felt like lazy writing. I hope that there’s more focus on Tatiana Maslany’s clone characters, rather than the new “male clones”. But most of all I just hope to watch it soon! I hate having to wait almost a whole year between doses of shows!

If you got to the end of this review and are looking for a recommendation, you’re looking in the wrong place. It’s the third season, and this review already gave away loads of spoilers for the previous seasons. You’d better go back to those reviews, or just go find it online to watch it from the beginning. Mind you, that sounds like a good idea, to be honest. I don’t want it to sound like I’m completely trashing this season, but the first one was written much more tightly than this one, so rewatching it from the beginning sounds like a nice plan.

TV: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, season 2 (2015)

brooklyn-nine-nine_612x380Creators: Dan Goor and Michael Schur
Language: English with some French
Length: 23 episodes, roughly 22 minutes each
Finished watching on: 22 May 2015

Brooklyn Nine-Nine was a new contender in the TV scene last year, coming in with a strong first season. Its second season is a worthy continuation of that. The writing is tight and the jokes come fast and readily, helped in no small part by the excellent comedic timing of its actors.

As a sitcom, there isn’t a whole lot in the way of overarching plot, although there is more this time around than in the first season. As a result, each story seems a bit disjointed, and no one story is particularly memorable. But overall it’s an enjoyable series and something that’s easy to look forward to after a long day at work.

Also since it’s a sitcom, character development is pretty limited and usually serves to emphasize the characters’ distinctive traits – but it’s worth noting that enough real character development is done to keep the series feeling a bit fresh, even if occasionally I got the feeling that the lessons characters were learning by the end of the episode were just going to be forgotten by the next.

I was pleased with this season, in any case – I’ll be continuing to watch it next year. In fact it should be starting again in September, so I have something to look forward to.

TV: In the Flesh seasons 1 & 2 (2013-14)

IMG_2169.JPGCreator: Dominic Mitchell
Language: English
Length: 3 episodes and 6 episodes respectively, around 60 minutes each
Finished watching on: Sep 5 and Sep 11 respectively

The first I heard of this show was, perhaps ironically, through an article linked on my Facebook arguing the case for it to be renewed for a third season, so far an uncertain fate. To be fair, it’s quite possible that I’d heard vaguely about the “gay zombie show” before, but this was at least the first time I’d been made aware of it explicitly.

The words “BBC Three series” don’t fill one with much hope, to be honest, but this surpassed those expectations. As I alluded, the main character has gay relationships, making the show perhaps most famous for actually being one of the few on modern television to include them, and moreover to do so without this being the biggest plot point, and without it being a show only about gay people. Thus it stands in contrast to other BBC shows that are more content to make gay jokes about their protagonists, who constantly protest their eternal heterosexuality.

The zombie aspect of the story is actually not as central as such a title would make you think though, as the zombie apocalypse has already been and gone, and those who weren’t killed, including the main character, have been rehabilitated into society by the government. They take drugs to fix their minds, and wear makeup and contacts to disguise their undead status.

But not everyone’s happy about that. Most of the fictional Lancashire village where the show’s set vehemently hate the zombies, who are known in the show either as the euphemistic “PDS sufferers” or the offensive “rotters”. Thus the show becomes, for the most part, a metaphor for oppression.

The other main metaphor seems to be for mental illness. The acronym PDS seems to be deliberately selected by the creators to be reminiscent of PTSD, which the main character visibly suffers from, especially in the first season, when he gets violent flashbacks a lot to his time as a zombie, or to the fact that he had committed suicide before the opening of the series. A large part of the first series deals with the way he and his family react to his return, and more generally, how people deal with the aftermath of suicide.

The final main theme is religion. It’s not surprising that when the dead start to rise, people become very religious, as it coincides with what’s taught in the bible. So especially in the first season (in the second, a year has passed and the situation has sort of settled), representatives of the church plays the part of the main antagonists. The undead, too, have their own prophet and religion predicting similar things to the living church, such as a second rising.

I’m not going to get anywhere recapping the plot, however. Suffice to say the show is brimming with ideas and tales about all the different families affected in different ways, so much so that it feels like it’s overflowing, especially with such short seasons. And yet there are so many questions left unanswered. Like, was this phenomenon confined to the UK, or was it worldwide? How did other cultures deal with it?

The main thing I took away was how emotionally draining it was to watch, actually. The situations feel very real, and the characters are very well portrayed and identifiable, so seeing them often in pain is very affecting, and can be difficult to watch.

I also had a bit of a heart-wrenching realization moment when I noticed how many of the undead characters are so young – only one or two of the PDS characters are in their old age – and how it seems like just about every family we see in the village has been affected in some way by a recent death. Of course, this has to do with conservation of detail. Even though the story is about them getting their second chances, it was a sobering moment.

Notwithstanding the difficult emotional aspect of the show, it is also heartwarming and has comedic moments too, and I really enjoyed watching it. Since it ended on a cliffhanger, I do really hope they make the next season. And I’d definitely recommend it. Having a cute lead also helps.

TV: Orphan Black season 2 (2014)

orphanblack2creators: Graeme Manson & John Fawcett
language: English with a bit of German and Korean in the first episode
length: 10 episodes of 44 minutes
finished watching on: 22 June 2014

This is the TV series I’d been waiting for all year, after it being by far my favourite of 2013, and it didn’t disappoint. It starts off strong, and keeps going in every episode, constantly feeling under pressure and with many dramatic turns happening constantly.

I can’t remember if I mentioned that last year, but it’s even more prominent this year that this is a direct result of the more “British-style” production of making a smaller number of episodes with a dedicated team of two, who can give the episodes a consistent level of writing throughout and manage to completely avoid useless filler, except for an indulgent scene in the final episode. The balance between comedy and drama is also maintained to some degree, although increasingly it seems that some episodes are deemed mostly comedic or vice-versa, instead of having a mixture of scenes within each episode.

Tatiana Maslany’s acting has also come on by leaps and bounds this time. I still look at all the different performances and can’t believe they’re the same person: even though her appearance changing between the clones is mostly superficial, the performance really influences my mind to believe that they genuinely are different people. That and the visual effects team, presumably – I’ve seen some very fascinating on-set pictures of Maslany interacting with her double. It’s much more naturalistic than predecessors such as The Parent Trap or Austin Powers, where the characters almost didn’t interact at all, and when they did, it was visibly with a double hiding their face from the camera. Here they brazenly put both faces on the screen together and have one messing around with the others’ hair, or as in the picture above, lying right on top of each other with a gun in hand.

Storywise, the plot is getting ever more complicated as the series goes on – for instance, by the end of this season, there are many new characters and (spoiler alert) a whole new set of clones introduced. The new Amishesque religious characters introduced here are probably even creepier than the ones from the first season in the darkened rooms. The full role of some of the characters has yet to be realized even now – for instance, we still don’t really know where Mrs S comes from or who she supports in the whole debacle.

A lot of the first half of the season takes place out in the countryside, away from the city, which makes a nice change of pace from the first season, totally set in a claustrophobic metropolis. The characters feel more vulnerable out there, perhaps unable to find help so easily. I quite liked this change of pace, and it helped to mentally distinguish the new storylines from the old.

The background theme and discussion of personal identity and female empowerment is much stronger in this season, too: there is the newest clone, Tony, who is transgender, as the most notable of all the additions, cementing the creators’ quest to include LGBT characters more and explore those kinds of identities, but there’s also Cosima, vehemently defending her right to make her own decisions about what happens to her body, or Rachel, getting violently upset when she discovers that the clones were deliberately made infertile.

The ending was much more low-key this year than last. Last year there was a huge cliffhanger, but this time, although we don’t know what will happen next, I don’t feel such a sense of urgency to find out. Nevertheless, I’m going to have to wait until next April to find out what happens next, and I can only hope that the creators manage to add in some more episodes next time; even just a couple will make it less difficult to wait for the next time.

TV: Faking It season 1 (2014)

homecoming4.JPGcreators: Dana Min Goodman & Julia Wolov
language: English
length: 8 episodes, 22 minutes each
finished watching on: 11 June 2014

The synopsis for this makes it sound more awful than it actually is. Essentially, two girls are mistaken for lesbians and “outed” to the whole school. They find it makes them popular (huh?) and stick with the lie, to be voted homecoming queens. What the synopsis fails to mention is that one girl quickly develops or realizes genuine feelings for the other, creating a lot of the drama in the story, as the other starts trying to date a boy – although she must do it in secret because the school would “lynch” them for lying about their relationship. It’s quite funny and easy to watch.

In many respects it’s similar the movie GBF, which I also watched recently – particularly that the synopsis sound worse than it is and somebody is forcibly outed by a supposed ally or other member of the LGBT community (I should think most LGBT people know this is something you do not do). It also shares GBF’s main actor as a supporting character, in this case playing the polar opposite of his other character: flamboyant and with many snappy one-liners. The best kind of gay for comedies.

It’s unusual for an American show in that it’s very short, at only eight episodes – but I’d argue that’s a good thing, because it allows it to be almost devoid of filler and able to have a sense of focus and conservation of detail that many shows do not. It sort of takes place in a hyperreal state of being as a result of this – and this is coupled with the odd setting of a high school in Austin that has the reverse social hierarchy compared to the teen flick archetype. Jocks are boring and the weirder you are, the better. I think this is why it’s been so popular online.

Most importantly with a TV show, even though I was only watching it for a few weeks, I looked forward to the day it came out (albeit not as much as for Orphan Black!). I’d recommend it, definitely.