Category Archives: Netflix

House of Cards Season 6 Review

Starring Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Diane Lane, Campbell Scott, Lars Mikkelsen, Boris McGiver, Derek Cecil and Greg Kinnear.

Warning: Major spoilers for Season 5, Minor Spoilers for Season 6.

House of Cards used to be the best show on Netflix. The first two seasons are still as good as anything the service has ever produced. The show made a few missteps in season 3, but recovered in Season 4, which was mostly a return to form. Then, two big curveballs threatened to bring the whole thing crashing down. First, Season 5 was a mess, with a few standout episodes let down by a contrived plot, obvious twists and an inability to live up to the real life drama created by the current White House administration. It was easily the worst of the bunch. Then, far more seriously, the show’s star, Kevin Spacey, spectacularly fell from grace under a deluge of sexual harassment allegations from other actors and crewmembers (which are still not proven as of yet, but Netflix had little choice but to drop him and erase the two episodes he’d already filmed).

Fortunately, Season 5 ended in a way which made it easy for Netflix to continue with the show, as Claire Underwood, Francis’ wife, had become president following her husband’s resignation. However, a lot of fans were concerned about this, as while Robin Wright is a very good actress, she had ultimately been second fiddle to Spacey for most of the run, and the seasons which had focused on Claire more weren’t the best. However, Netflix ploughed ahead, and for completionism’s sake, I decided to give the final season a go.

So… does it still work without Kevin Spacey in the lead?

Surprisingly, yes it does.

Robin Wright is a revelation now she’s been freed from being the support act. As a lead, she’s far more compelling and likeable than she ever was before. Similarly liberated is Michael Kelly, whose Doug Stamper gets far more to do without Francis pulling his strings. While neither has been my favourite character during the 5 previous series, they both come into their own here, and its very hard to decide which of them to root for. The series introduces a new group of villains in the form of Bill and Annette Shepherd (Greg Kinnear and Diane Lane), two influential businesspeople who try to force Claire to support their various agendas, and have vice-president Mark Usher in their pocket. Both prove to be good rivals for Claire, and while not up there with Lars Mikkelsen’s wonderful Russian President Petrov (who steals every scene he’s in once again), they are two of the more memorable adversaries the show has given us so far, and their recruitment of Seth ties them into Francis’ world nicely. The conflict between all these parties, as well as Tom Hammerschmidt and Janine’s continuing desire to bring Claire down and destroy Frank’s legacy, makes for very compelling viewing.

At 8 episodes long, it’s shorter than the other seasons, but this actually works in its favour, as things feel less padded out than before (though in truth, 10 episodes might have worked better!). The soundtrack and the direction are as good as ever, while the writing is a notable step up from Season 5, if not the best we’ve ever had on the show.

But does Season 6 end the series on a satisfactory note?

No, unfortunately it doesn’t.

Spacey’s absence is dealt with well, as is Doug’s end of season 5 predicament. But while the show ties up most of Season 5’s loose ends well enough, it fails to do the same for itself, mostly because of the finale. Episodes 4-7 of season 6 are brilliant, but episode 8 is not. The conflict between Claire and the shepherds is left sort-of unresolved, Seth, Janine and Mark Usher don’t really get any kind of meaningful resolution to their storylines and the final showdown between Claire and Doug is unsatisfying, and features a twist that doesn’t really work.

Ultimately, were Netflix to change its mind and commission a 7th series, I would now be happy with that. But if this really is the end… it could have been so much better. So, to sum up, Season 6 may leave a bitter aftertaste, but it reminds you of why this show was such a hit. Spacey’s shadow looms large, but the show proves that it was never just him that made it such a success.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (its a fun ride, but the final episode drags the whole thing down)

Coming soon: Expect my review of Detroit: Become Human, one of the year’s most thought provoking video games, and sometime after, my take on the new Fantastic Beasts movie.

Advertisements

5 Sci-Fi Shows to watch instead of the New Doctor Who

Since I made the decision to give up on Chibnall’s travesty of a Doctor Who series, I have felt a palpable sense of relief. Sunday evenings are considerably less depressing now. For those of you in the same boat, I thought I’d recommend a few alternate ways for you to experience some good science fiction on TV. So here’s 5 of my favourites, all of which are considerably better value than any more hours with Whittaker’s Doctor will be.

1. Red Dwarf: The UK’s second longest-running Sci-fi series, Red Dwarf is about as far as you can get from Who. Political Correctness is usually mocked rather than adhered to. Comedy takes precedence over drama. The episodes are all around 30-40 minutes long. None of the characters are meant to be role-models, so they often get pushed into greyer territory. Most importantly, the series is meant for adults, not children, so we don’t get all this nauseating kindergarten-morality and dumbed-down explanations shoved in. As for the quality of the series, it is admittedly variable, but there’s some great runs in there (Series 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7 are bloody brilliant) and even the more recent series, which can be comparatively weak, occasionally throw up an absolute gem of an episode (Series 8’s ‘Cassandra’, Series 10’s ‘Dear Dave’, Series 12’s ‘Mechocracy). The main cast are all brilliant, featuring Craig Charles (Corrie, Robot Wars) as the slobbish Lister, Chris Barrie (Lara Croft films) as the incompetent elitist Rimmer, Danny John-Jules (of this year’s Strictly) as the Self-Absorbed Cat and Robert Llewellyn (some tech shows on channel 5) as the subservient mechanoid Kryten. The interplay between the four of them is brilliant, and makes even less-funny instalments of the series watchable. The science fiction elements are quite good too, even if done in a knockout way. We get holograms, demented droids, time-travel, virtual reality and a lot of shade being thrown at Star Trek. What more could you want? Available on Netflix and UKTV play.

High Point: Series 6. One episode got a BAFTA nomination, but to be honest, all 6 episodes are comedy gold.

Low Point: Back to Earth. It may have got the series re-commissioned on Dave, but this three part special is short on laughs and high on stupidity.

2. Star Trek: Voyager: If you fancy a more serious alternate to Doctor Who, Star Trek is the obvious option that springs to mind from across the pond. With aliens, space battles, timey-wimey episodes and a MUCH larger budget than Doctor Who, it seems like a natural fit for Whovians. But which one to go for? Trekkies would probably either recommend the Original Series (the one with William Shatner as Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Spock) or the Next Generation (with Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard). Both have their plus points, as does Deep Space Nine (the third series), but to be honest, they can all be hard to get into, as they’ve either aged a lot or don’t have stellar first series. I’d recommend avoiding Enterprise (the least loved prequel series) or Discovery (Netflix’s appalling spin-off). Personally, i’d go for Voyager. It’s got a more episodic feel to it, which makes it more accessible to casual viewers and people who aren’t all that familiar with Star Trek. It also has arguably the most engaging cast of any of the Star Trek shows. It’s very much an ensemble piece, including Kate Mulgrew (Orange is the New Black) as the formidable Captain Janeway, Robert Beltran as her stalwart but spiritual First Officer, Robert Picardo as the ship’s hologrammatic Doctor (who has a terrible bedside manner), Tim Russ as Tuvok, a Vulcan Security Officer, Roxanne Dawson as the half-Klingon engineer with serious anger issues and Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine, a reformed Borg Drone (and arguably the best character in Star Trek) who turns up in Season 4. The show has a unique plot compared to most Star Trek series, as Voyager sees the crew utterly cut off from Star Fleet and any human contact, allowing for more inventive stories and a whole host of recurring alien races, most notably the Borg. The Borg are Star Trek’s answer to Cybermen, but honestly, it uses them far better than Modern Who has used the Cybermen. The Borg are relentless, genuinely scary, and while they do get overused later in Voyager’s run, they never outstay their welcome. The show was made in the late 90’s, so the effects still hold up very well, and while there’s a few bad episodes in the shows seven seasons, most are enjoyable on some level (and crucially, less dull than some of the other Star Trek series). Ultimately, this is probably my favourite Sci-Fi series at the moment. Best of all – its all on Netflix.

High Point: Seasons 4, 5 and 7 are very, very good. There’s so many strong episodes its hard to narrow that down much further.

Low Point: The Early part of Season 2 and the Middle Part of Season 3 are pretty bad, but both series’ eventually recover to finish on highs, so stick with it.

3. Blakes 7: While Red Dwarf is the UK’s second most known Sci-fi show, arguably the second best one is Blakes 7, which ran for four series from 1978-1981. It was created by Terry Nation, the man who created the Daleks for Doctor Who, and reflected the bleak, dark nature of his worldview and stories. Often described as ‘Robin Hood in space’ or ‘the dirty dozen’ in Space, it featured a regular cast of between five and seven rebels fighting against the tyrannical federation, a totalitarian regime that had control over Earth and the majority of human colonies in the milky way. Like Voyager, it works because of the characters, who are all various shades of grey, whether heroes or villains. There’s no boring ‘black and white’ morality here – the majority of rebels are convicted criminals (thieves, hackers, smugglers, murderers) and are somewhat justifiably presented by the federation as terrorists, while the villains are generally complex characters and never just moustache twirling villains. On the rebel side, you have the titular Blake, a fanatical but generally well-meaning leader, Vila, a cowardly thief, Jenna, a no-nonsense smuggler, Cally, a telepathic gunslinger/medic, Gan, a hulking if dim-witted giant and Avon, a thoroughly duplicitous hacker played by the marvellous Paul Darrow, who proved so popular he took over as lead actor for series 3 and 4. The villains include Travis, a ruthless federation officer with a penchant for leather outfits, and Servalan, his female superior, who is notably one of the first ever female villains in sci-fi and radiates power, malevolence and dangerous beauty throughout. There are some similarities to Classic Who and Classic Star Trek, but Blakes 7 is very much its own thing. While aliens play a part in events, its one of those sci-fi shows where humans are very much the real villains. There’s few high-concepts like time-travel, though teleportation and high-speed space travel play a big part. Overall its a gritty, dark thoroughly adult sci-fi show, which is still remembered on account of it having one of the bleakest and most infamous endings of any TV show. You have been warned. (For god’s sake don’t look it up in advance – that would be akin to spoiling the Red Wedding). You can buy the complete box set for around £20, which is pretty damn good for 52, fifty minute episodes.

High Point: Avon might just be the best anti-hero in Science fiction, while Servalan is definitely one of the all-time great female sci-fi villains.

Low Point: The special effects vary between dire and mediocre. Blame the BBC for giving it a shoestring budget.

4. Stranger Things: If you’re after something more modern, the best current sci-fi show I can think of is Stranger Things. I’ve reviewed it before, so I won’t go into as much detail, but Stranger Things is a great episode of how to mix drama, comedy, horror and fantasy into one great Science Fiction show. Set in the 80’s, it feels like a homage to a whole variety of 80’s cult and sci-fi films, including Aliens and many Spielberg films. The direction is universally good, the writing is consistently strong (even if both seasons take 3-4 episodes to properly get going) and the music is absolutely sublime. But the main reason you’ll stick with it is the cast, featuring established greats like Winona Ryder, Sean Astin, Dave Harbour and Paul Reiser, but also young stars like Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard. Given how often Star Trek and Doctor Who have been let down by poor child-actors, it’s refreshing to see an adult-oriented show that actually has a really engaging young cast. The sci-fi elements are really great, featuring alternate dimensions and creepy government labs, you’ll have seen it all before, but not as compellingly done as it is here. On Netflix, you’ll probably binge the whole thing in 4 or 5 days.

High Point: Hard to say, but the last three episode of season 1 and episodes 5-9 of season 2 are unmissable television.

Low Point: The first few episodes may not hook you, but there isn’t really a bad one so far. It’s a pretty consistent show to be honest.

5. (Classic) Doctor Who: Slight cheat this, but given how few ‘fans’ have ever really gone back and watched the classic series its a valid option, and given its stories are normally 4-6 part instalments of 25 minutes each, it feels quite different from the Doctor Who you’re probably used to. Given there are 26 series from 1963-1989, featuring 7 very distinct Doctors (most people would plump for Tom Baker or Patrick Troughton as the best, but Jon Pertwee is up there too) you can sate your fix for Doctor Who without bearing with Chibnall’s clusterfuck or re-watching Eccleston-Capaldi for the umpteenth time. While you may struggle with the cheap and lacklustre special effects and some mediocre stories and companions, there’s plenty of great Doctors, great companions (Sarah Jane, The Brigadier, Jamie, Ian and Barbara, K9, Romana – just to name a few) and some stories that are equal to anything the modern series has produced: The Invasion (1969), Inferno (1970), Genesis of the Daleks (1975), Earthshock (1981), The Caves of Androzani (1984) and Remembrance of the Daleks (1988) are all some of my (and the fanbases) favourites, and are good ones to try out to see if you can handle the classic era. Don’t start with Hartnell and go chronologically – the majority of bad who stories come from either the early 60’s or the mid eighties. I’d recommend you start from Patrick Troughton’s second series (The Tomb of the Cybermen onwards) through to when Peter Davison exits. You’ll find the odd bad episode, but you’ll get some of the best Dalek and Cybermen stories out there, as well as seeing the introductions of Davros, the Master, the Sontarans, the Silurians, the Ice Warriors and UNIT, so there’s plenty of things to watch out for. Just don’t expect it to look anywhere near as good as the modern series. It doesn’t. The direction can be quite good though, even if the composers aren’t in Murray Gold’s league. Not all the episodes are easy to find, but many are on dailymotion and most are relatively cheap to buy on dvd.

High Point: Tom Baker’s 2nd (1975), 3rd (1976) and 5th (1978) series are about as good as you can get, but Pertwee’s 1st series (1970), Sylvester McCoy’s last series (1989) and Patrick Troughton’s third series (1969) all feature some great stories and are pretty good throughout.

Low Point: There’s some really bad William Hartnell stories, and Colin Baker’s tenure was very hit-and-miss, but you can’t get worse than McCoy’s first series in 1987. It’s probably the only one worse than the series currently airing. It features four stories, all of which are bad, and Bonnie Langford’s Mel has to be the worst companion in the series 55-year history.

So there you go: my take on some shows disillusioned Whovians might appreciate at the moment. Or you can just go and rewatch Torchwood. Your call!

Orange is the New Black Season 6 Review

Starring Taylor Schilling, Natasha Lyonne, Danielle Brooks, Selenis Leyva, Nick Sandow and Kate Mulgrew.

Warning: Minor Plot Spoilers follow for Season 6. Major Spoilers for Season 5.

Season 5 got mixed reviews. I personally loved it, but I can see why some thought it got too fan-service-y in places. Even it detractors have to admit the riot made for compelling viewing. But there were always going to be consequences. The first half of S6 is all about those consequences, and the two key themes of the season are betrayal and redemption.

The opening episodes see the feds out to pin the blame for both the riot and Humphrey and Piscatella’s deaths on at least 5 of the inmates, which leads to a lot of backstabbing and mud-slinging as the various inmates try to save themselves or settle old scores. Some betrayals you really won’t see coming, others are what season 5 was all building up to. The remaining episodes deal with the consequences, as the inmates in question seek revenge, struggle with guilt or fear retribution.

While most of the regulars are back this season, a lot of familiar faces are missing (because they were put in a different prison, while we follow the ones sent to Litchfield Max). Characters like Big Boo and Helen get mere cameos, while ones like Watson, Norma and Chang are entirely absent. A third of the guards from last season are gone too, though Dixon, Luschek, Donuts and McCullough are all back to some extent.

There are various new characters too, both prisoners and guards, some of whom are more memorable than others. The main plot of the season sees the inmates caught up in the tension between C-block and D-block in Maximum Security, driven by a long-standing feud between sisters Carol and Barbara, who are the two major players in Max. Other newbies include their enforcers, Badison (who might just be the nastiest piece of work OITNB has given us) and Daddy (who strikes up a surprisingly sweet relationship with one of the series regulars). The new guards are similarly hit-and-miss, but chief Hopper, Luschek and McCullough’s arcs make up for the less interesting ones.

Things feel a lot more tense this season – the very nature of Max has you constantly worried that someone is about to get shivved or beaten up (both of which happen) while some of the guards are beyond brutal in how they treat Daya and the riot leaders. Orange is the New Black has always been good at mixing humour and drama with the darker side of prison life, and that balance remains as compelling as ever here. If had to criticise, the central conflict between the blocks peters out a bit too much, and there’s no shocks here up there with Poussey or Piscatella’s deaths, but the season as a whole is still pretty great viewing regardless.

The humour is still on point, with highlights including Flaca and Black Cindy teaming up as the new prison radio hosts and Suzanne and Freida becoming cellmates. While most of the romance focus is on Piper and Alex, there are several other compelling pairings throughout the season (including a somewhat unlikely love triangle involving Luschek and two of the prisoners, as well as the conclusion of the Doggett/Donuts arc). Surprisingly the best pairing of the season is Caputo and Fig, who’s relationship plays a much bigger part in the story than you might expect.

Meanwhile it’s Red, Taystee, Daya and Ruiz who get the lion’s share of the drama side of things. The flashbacks remain mostly interesting – Freida’s is arguably the most important, though its Nicky and Cindy’s snapshots that will probably leave a lasting impression. The majority of flashbacks tend to focus on the new characters rather than existing ones, but this was pretty inevitable given the number of cast changes this season.

Overall, I wouldn’t say this is OITNB’s best season, but its a damn good one, even if the finale lacks the punch of recent seasons. Focusing in on a smaller section of the cast seemed to work well, but the quality of the newcomers varied. The show still remains the best Netflix has to offer though.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

 

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Series 2 Review

Starring Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Warburton, Malina Weissman and Louis Hynes

Spoiler Free

I loved the Series of Unfortunate Events books as a kid. Like many, I was slightly disappointed by the film adaptation starring Jim Carrey as Count Olaf, which lacked the soul of the original. While Series 1 of the more successful Netflix adaptation was undoubtedly a step up, it still wasn’t quite on par with the standard of the books. However, as books 1-4 weren’t exactly the best in the series, I was curious to see if the TV show would improve when adapting better material frim books 5-9. Has it? Sort of.

As with series 1, my main praise would have to go to the show’s cast and production. It looks amazing and you can’t really pick out a weak link in the cast. Neil Patrick Harris excels with most of his various guises (only Detective Dupin from a Vile Village is disappointing, and I’d blame that firmly on how poorly he’s written rather than Harris) and the Baudelaire’s actors keep the children easy to root for. The new additions to the supporting cast are generally great. Lucy Punch in some ways overshadows Harris as Esme Squalor, while Carmelita Spats is done absolutely perfectly in Austere Academy. Fellow newcomer Nathan Fillion also makes Jacques Snicket one of the best things in the first half of the season.

Unfortunately the writing isn’t always as spot on as the casting. While the series gets a strong start with Austere Academy and Ersatz Elevator, the Vile Village adaptation is resolutely dull. Hostile Hospital is watchable despite being based on one of the weakest books, while Carnivorous Carnival is a game of two halves (the first episode is great, the second not so much). I feel like one problem the series has is that the two episode per book structure is hamstringing some of the more slow-paced books, like Vile Village, as the increased focus on the Volunteers and the Villains forces the show to condense a lot of what the children got up to in the books. Books fans might also be perplexed by one or two changes from the novels (for example, two of Olaf’s henchmen who died in books 8 and 9 are inexplicably still alive at the end of series 2, for no apparent reason).

While there’s a lot of fun to be had from the performances, I still feel like this show doesn’t know exactly what it wants to be. It isn’t funny enough for a dark-humoured comedy and its tone isn’t dark enough (despite the subject matter) for it to be a great drama. Sure, it’s entertaining, but Olaf is still nowhere near as menacing as in the books, and you don’t feel tension anywhere near as often as the show seems to want you to.

In short, this is slightly better that series one, but only because it’s based off some of the better books, not because they’ve drastically improved things. So if you liked the first series, the second will happily give you more of the same. If the first series left you sceptical, the second won’t change your mind. Hopefully Series 3 can end this adaptation on a high, but I’ll be watching it for completionists’ sake, not because I consider it essential viewing.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Next up, I finally get around to reviewing Black Panther…

Jessica Jones Season 2 Review

Starring Krysten Ritter, Rachael Taylor, Eka Darville, Carrie-Anne Moss and Janet McTreer.

Warning: Minor Spoilers Follow for Season 2 and Major Spoilers for Season 1

Jessica Jones is easily the most interesting of Marvel’s TV superheroes. Her first season was gripping in a way that Luke Cage and Iron Fist never came close to. Yes, it was three episodes too long (like almost ALL Marvel Netflix productions – even the 8-episode Defenders had that problem) but for the most part it was very engaging stuff, helped immeasurably by Krysten Ritter’s tortured ‘not-a-heroine’ Jessica and David Tennant’s chilling villain Kilgrave. The series 1 finale saw Jessica finally get the upper hand and snap Kilgrave’s neck, which begged one obvious question: how the hell do you follow David Tennant as a villain?

Season 2’s answer is to have multiple antagonists. Between dickhead lawyer Pryce (Terry Chen), fellow Metahuman Alisa (Janet McTreer) and scientist Karl (the one who gave Jessica her powers) there’s a lot of potential bad guys floating around. But, unlike the black and white films Marvel is so fond of, there’s a lot of grey here. Jessica, Trish and Hogarth all go to some pretty dark places this season, while none of the villains are the out-and-out monster Kilgrave was. This helps keep the season somewhat unpredictable, even if none of the new characters come close to being as memorable as Tennant.

Fortunately, even if the show can’t live up to season 1’s villain, it does fix a lot of that season’s other problems. The pacing, while slow for the first few episodes, never feels padded out in the way season 1 was. There’s actually 12-13 episodes worth of story to tell here, not 8-10 stretched out like was the case last time. The show also cuts out some of the slack from season 1 (Simpson’s role in events is minimal but effective, Hogarth’s storyline actually leads somewhere) and develops the supporting characters a lot more (Trish and Malcolm have very different season long journeys, while the Jessica who comes out of episode 13 is definitely not the one we see in episode 1). The show also gives Jessica a new love interest who is a really good replacement for Luke, which I wasn’t expecting. The various plot twists don’t derail things the way they scuppered Luke Cage’s last season either, even if the mid-season twist is equally cliché.

Its not all good: the first episode is pretty dreadful, the season’s arc takes a while to become clear and Hogarth’s storyline isn’t always engaging, but overall I think I actually preferred this to season 1. Even if Tennant’s involvement is minimal, the season is much better structured and the production, direction and writing are all pretty consistently strong from episode 2 onwards. If you like darker, more meaningful superhero shows that feature actual detective work and real consequences, Jessica Jones is still the only Marvel offering worth looking at… well unless you happen to find Daredevil interesting (I don’t but I know plenty of people do).

Rating: 4 out of 5 (I gave the first season 3.5/5)

Next up: My review of the second season of ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’. Or Black Panther if I finally find time to see it.

Stranger Things: Season 2 Review

Starring Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Sean Astin and Paul Reiser.

TV shows tend to hit their stride a bit more in their second season than they did in their first run. This is true for everything from Doctor Who to Arrow to The Grand Tour. This tends to be because showrunners have the chance to look at the first series and iron out any obvious issues that annoyed fans or critics the first time round. The only reason shows can tend to be worse in their second season is if there have been substantial cast changes or there wasn’t a good enough story arc/idea to merit a sequel in the first place. Stranger Things’ cast remained consistent from Series 1, so its continued success was always going to be down to whether the showrunners had a good, clear idea of what the show should do going forward. Good news – they absolutely did.

The show hits the ground running pretty quickly compared to season 1. While the first two episodes mainly serve as exercise in introducing new characters (such as Max [Sadie Sink], a love interest for Dustin and Lucas, and Joyce’s new boyfriend, played by Sean Astin aka Samwise Gamgee) and seeing how the land lies after the events of the season 1 finale (Mike still waiting for Eleven, Nancy’s guilt over Barbara’s death, Will suffering from PTSD etc.) things pick up pretty quickly from episode 3 onwards. The cliffhangers feel more meaningful this time, particularly the ones in episodes 6 and 8. Episode 6’s cliffhanger is exacerbated by the fact that you have to wait a whole chapter to see the resolution, since episode 7 purely focuses on Eleven’s journey (yet still remains extremely engaging). There’s less annoying character moments this time as well (apart from Mike being a dick to Max, though given how much Eleven’s disappearance and Will’s trauma put him through this season its understandable). Paul Reiser (aka Burke from Aliens) also joins the cast as a government doctor at Hawkins lab, and it is pleasingly unclear for most of the season what his true morals/motivations are.

The shows’ production remains largely faultless. The music fits perfectly. The direction and effects mesh together nicely. The dialogue is never clunky or cringeworthy. There are more humorous moments than in season one. Their are less genre-based clichés this time (the government agency isn’t wholly evil for once). The storyline is engaging. If it wasn’t for the fact that you can see where most of the character arcs are headed (i.e. Eleven’s decision at the end of chapter 7/which of Dustin or Lucas that Max will end up with) and the sense that most of the characters are too important for the show to kill off (Will is the only one of the young cast you ever feel is in real danger, ditto Steve amongst the young adults) I’d have no issues with this show at all. However, while the predictability is a shame, rather like in Game of Thrones season 7, you’ll be having too much fun to really care.

Overall Stranger Things 2 is an improvement on the first series in almost every regard. The new cast members slot in seamlessly, the music and direction remain a standout, and the season hits its stride much earlier than the first one did. Only its predictability prevents me giving this a perfect rating.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

My next review will probably be Jessica Jones season 2, followed by Black Panther when I finally get around to watching it.

Stranger Things Season 1 Review

Starring Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard and Millie Bobby Brown.

Minor Spoilers only. Everything mentioned is given away by an episode title or trailers.

So I finally got around to watching it. I don’t tend to binge watch many series (House of Cards and Orange is the New Black aside) but I watched the entirety of Season 1 on Tuesday and didn’t regret a thing. With my interest in Doctor Who and Star Trek flagging (Who’s last series sapped my enthusiasm and I can’t seem to get into any Trek series other than Voyager) I’ve been looking for a new sci-fi fix. Black Mirror is up there, but Stranger Things is even better. It’s mix of teen/coming of age storylines, sci-fi, horror and fantasy makes it appealing to a wide audience and, for anyone who is sick of everything in film and TV being set in New York, London or Los Angeles, its small country town setting is refreshing. Also, its only 8 episodes, which means it avoids the normal Netflix trap of being stretched out several episodes beyond its natural runtime (see Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, The Defenders and House of Cards’ last 3 seasons).

For those yet to watch it, the series is set in Hawkins, a small sleepy town in Indiana, USA. It revolves around the disappearance of Will Byers, a young boy, and the appearances of both Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a young girl who has escaped a nearby government lab, and an unknown Monster terrorizing the local woods. The focus is split between Will’s family (his older loner brother Jonathan and his increasingly hysterical mother Joyce, played by Winona Ryder), Will’s best friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin and Lucas, local cop Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and Mike’s sister older Nancy.

Most of the time is spent with Mike, Dustin and Lucas, who take it upon themselves to find Will, while also trying to keep Eleven hidden from both their parents and the government agents looking for her. Hinging a series on young actors always carries some risk, but the quartet are all well-acted and, for the most part, relatable and engaging characters. Winona Ryder is also a great asset to the series, in a role that in the hands of a lesser actress might come across as irritating, as she starts to realise her son’s disappearance is not due to anything natural. Nancy’s story looks predictable at first as she falls for local bad-boy Steve, but after she becomes entangled with Will and his hunt for his brother’s kidnapper, she becomes one of the stronger parts of the show. Local cop Hopper likewise could have come across as a cliché, but David Harbour plays the role with such charm and understated turmoil that you can’t help but root for him.

It isn’t a flawless series. There are genre-based clichés everywhere you look (shifty government labs, terrible father figures, easily resolved cliffhangers etc.) but that’s probably inevitable given the amount of things Stranger Things is a homage to. The show is also largely predictable and plays out pretty much the way you expect. But, to be honest, if you can see past these issues, there’s precious little else that will annoy you. The direction and effects maintain a very high standard throughout, while the soundtrack is extremely effective and the 80’s songs that play intermittently are as well chosen as Guardian of the Galaxy’s were. The dialogue is never cringeworthy or clunky, and all of the actors put in good performances.

Ultimately, that’s the main reason this show works so well: the characterisation. Even supporting characters that seem irritating in the first few episodes (such as Mike’s friend Lucas and Nancy’s love interest Steve) have character arcs that make them more likeable later down the line. The antagonists, whether school bullies or heartless government creeps, aren’t exactly developed much as characters but serve their purpose well enough, and you will feel immensely satisfied when they get their comeuppance in latter episodes. Arguably its the Monster that works best out of the shows villains, as it feels suitably scary and animalistic without straying too close to creatures from other sci-fi or horror series.

Overall, the first season of Stranger Things is engaging throughout, but only really starts to grip you in its second half where the various plotlines start meshing and bringing the characters together more. The production is fautless, even if the plot utilizes too many genre clichés to be considered particularly original. The acting is universally strong and the characterisation is of a higher standard than at least 90% of other TV shows, and that’s the real reason I’d recommend this above most of Netflix’s other shows.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I’ve already binged Season 2 so expect a review of that to be up soon (probably Saturday). Like this one I’ll keep it spoiler free. Good news: its even better than season 1.