Tag Archives: Netflix

My Top 10 TV shows of 2019

Here’s my annual top ten list of the shows which have most impressed and captivated me this year. As is becoming increasingly common, a lot of them come from Netflix, but not all.

As usual, I will keep the spoilers to a minimum – only oblique references to events, no details included.

10: His Dark Materials, Series 1: With a fantastic cast, His Dark Materials succeeded where the Golden Compass failed and did justice to the first book of Philip Pullman’s renowned trilogy. Dafne Keen proved, just like she did in Logan, that she’s arguably the best young actress out there at the moment (perhaps only rivalled by Stranger Things’ Millie Bobby Brown). Backed up by great turns from Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy and Lin-Manuel Miranda, His Dark Materials takes a few episodes to get going but eventually starts delivering great hours of TV, particularly episodes ‘the daemon-cages’ and ‘betrayal’ which was one of the best series finale’s I’ve seen in a while. It’s decision to bring forward elements of book 2 does slow things down a bit too much, but ultimately means that series 2 should hit the ground running. Can’t wait for it!

Rating: 4 out of 5

9: The Grand Tour, Series 3: The Grand Tour’s third outing (and final one – only specials from this point onwards) is by far its best. Its standout episodes involve Clarkson, Hammond and May building their own RV’s in America, going Wildlife Photographing in Colombia and, most memorably, building an off-road vehicle and driving across the great empty expanse of Mongolia. While not flawless, the series made several positive steps, including better use of test driver Abby, more reliance on natural rather than scripted humour and more diverse topics during episodes. There’s the occasional bit of naff banter or an overly scripted segment, but overall i’d happily rewatch most of these episodes again, which I couldn’t necessarily say about series 1 and 2. As the last run which will feature power tests, studio audiences, and the studio setup itself, it feels like Clarkson, Hammond and May ended things on a high. I’ll check out future specials, but if this was indeed the last full series for the trio, it was a fitting one.

Rating: 4 out of 5

8: Killing Eve: Series 2: Killing Eve might be the next spy drama I get hooked on, now that the Americans has finished and Homeland is winding down. Its superb leads Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer are very compelling, flawed characters who its easy to root for. Their increasingly will they, won’t they relationship and mutual obsession makes for great television, even if series 2 perhaps gets a bit too bogged down by the emotional side of things – the plot isn’t as good as series 1’s, even if the characters are just as gripping. Quality varies between episodes, but overall series 2 was a good follow up, if a slight step back in quality, but with a new showrunner taking the reins in series 3, I’m definitely excited to see where Villanelle and Eve go from here… assuming they survive each other’s company that is…

Rating: 4 out of 5

7: Orange is the New Black, Season 7: Orange is the New Black may have increasingly split fan opinion since Season 5, but I’ve always found it to be an enjoyable, consistent Netflix series. Focusing on some issues we haven’t seen before (dealing with such difficult topics as FGM, treatment of illegal immigrants in the US, dementia etc.) it remains a hard hitting drama. There were plenty of lighter moments to balance out the seriousness, and new characters to complement the old. Ultimately I can’t say this season was a perfect send-off, but it was a good one which did justice to its characters and tied things up well, and didn’t cop out and give everyone an unrealistic happy ending (3 things a far more high profile TV show failed to do this year…). Orange is the New Black has always had one of the best ensemble casts on Netflix, and remains one of the best female-led shows you’re likely to have seen, with particularly good work from Taylor Schilling, Taryn Manning and Natasha Lyonne – though if you asked, I wouldn’t pick out a single weak link amongst the wider cast. The highest compliment I can give this show is that I’ll miss it now that its gone, but I’m glad it ended on a relative high.

Rating: 4 out of 5

6: Black Mirror, Season 5: Despite only having a three episode run this year, Black Mirror remained a highlight, as all three episodes were of very high quality, if not the very best that the series is capable of producing. Starring such talent as Anthony Mackie, Andrew Scott and, bizarrely, Miley Cyrus, all three have a star quality feel to them, but remain grounded as lesser known talents round out the casts in all three cases. All touch on different issues, from the possibilities of advanced VR to the tragic side effects of social media to auto-tuning and exploitation in the music industry. Striking Vipers and Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too are quite easy to watch despite a couple of darker scenes, while those after the classic Black Mirror tension and sting in the tail should check out Smithereens – which features a masterclass in acting from a mentally tortured Andrew Scott. After the disappointing Bandersnatch, this was a timely return to form for Black Mirror, and I can’t wait to see what season 6 has in store, whether it comes with 3 episodes or 6. Hopefully Netflix doesn’t make us wait too long.

Rating: 4 out of 5

5: Swamp Thing, Season 1: Swamp Thing was unjustly cancelled before episode 2 had even aired, which is both baffling and a crying shame, as its pilot was the best I’ve ever seen from DC, and the first season as a whole was a cut above the arrowverse’s recent efforts. Crystal Reed is excellent as lead character Dr. Abby Arcane, who gets drawn back to her hometown to investigate a viral outbreak, only to become increasingly tangled in local criminal machinations and the supernatural events occurring in the swamp, where she encounters the titular character. Swamp Thing himself is wonderfully realised onscreen and while the action scenes aren’t as common as you might expect, they are very strong when they occur. A darker tale than most superhero shows, this is definitely geared more towards adults rather than CW’s shows are, while its shorter episode count works wonders – there’s very little padding here, though perhaps 1 or 2 subplots could have been streamlined slightly. Overall I was very impressed, and disappointed that we probably won’t get a resolution to some of the cliffhangers the show ended on. But if you have Amazon Prime, I’d highly recommend checking it out anyway!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

4: A Series of Unfortunate Events, Season 3: The third and final season was leaps and bounds ahead of the first two. Freed from the need to play a different version of Count Olaf in disguise every story, Neil Patrick Harris is better than ever here, while Esme and Carmelita are fabulous supporting villains. The episodes reduced runtimes also do the show a massive favour – whereas some installments in seasons 1 and 2 felt padded and stretched, everything feels tight and pacey here. Given the plots of books 10-13 all vary far more than 1-9, it feels like every story is its own special – not just variations on a recurring theme like the stories in the first two seasons. The show also adds flashbacks which fill in some of the gaps in the books narrative and show some of the events leading to VFD’s schism, which I found utterly enthralling. Overall, the show ended on a real high, which given its slow start, was quite impressive.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5:

3: Jessica Jones, Season 3: Jessica Jones’ third season is arguably the best of the three, with a stronger villain than season 2 and better pacing than season 1. The new characters are interesting, Jessica’s development goes in a different direction than before and Trish, Malcolm and Jeri get good material for their individual arcs. The direction and writing are as good as ever and while the main villain is less flamboyant than David Tennant’s Kilgrave, he’s far creepier and challenges Jessica in different ways. Trish arc’s is what the season hinges on, as her conflict with Jessica varies between reluctant cooperation and open hostility between the two, with the series good at keeping you guessing which way things will go till the last 3 episodes. Overall, it’s my favourite superhero show from this year, just edging out Swamp Thing.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

2. The Crown, Season 3: The latest series of the Crown switches out most of the main cast, but remains as compelling as ever. Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies and Helena Bonham Carter nail the roles of Elizabeth, Philip and Margaret just as well as their predecessors. It has a very strong run of episodes in the early part of the season, until ‘Moondust’ which is quite dull, but the only damp squib in the 10 episode runtime. The new cast-members playing Charles, Anne and Prime Minister Harold Wilson are all superb additions and steal the show at times, and left me eager to see how the show will handle Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher, both of whom will have key roles in Season 4. The show visually looks as good as ever, with excellent direction, location filming and editing. The new composer perhaps isn’t quite as good as his predecessor, but still does a solid job. Series Highlights include the Margaret’s visit to America, the Royal Family and the Government reacting to the Aberfan tragedy (which I must admit I knew nothing about previously) and Charles being sent to study in Wales and learn the language and history. This might just be the best of the three seasons so far. Keep it up!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

1: Fleabag, Series 2: I wasn’t hugely enthralled by Fleabag’s first series, which started well but had an underwhelming second half. Nevertheless I decided to give S2 a go, and the premiere blew my socks off. Andrew Scott’s sweary, charismatic (and according to most women who’ve seen it, extremely hot) priest was just the addition needed to bring the best out of the existing cast, who all perform extremely well. Funnier and a touch more upbeat than series 1, this was great from start to finish, mostly due to Waller-Bridge’s performance and excellent writing. At a time when classic BBC series like Doctor Who and Top Gear have completely lost their appeal, it’s nice to know the national broadcaster can still sometimes produce the goods. Though that may just be because Waller-Bridge is working with them. For god’s sake BBC, don’t you dare lose her! Or the licence fee might as well be scrapped. But, thinking positively, this is the first time since 2015 that a British TV show has topped this list, so that’s an encouraging sign. Hopefully Waller-Bridge’s input reaps similar rewards for the upcoming James Bond film…

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Shows which narrowly missed out on this list included Big Mouth (lacked cohesion), Stranger Things (too light hearted), Game of Thrones (too divisive + weak finale), The Witcher (confusing timelines + boring Ciri plotline), Gotham (inconsistent) and iZombie (could’ve ended more strongly).

Best Actor: Henry Cavill (Geralt of Rivia – The Witcher)

Best Actress: Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones)

Best Supporting Actor: Andrew Scott (The Priest – Fleabag)

Best Supporting Actress: Jodie Comer (Villanelle – Killing Eve)

Best Young Actor:  Lewin Lloyd (Roger – His Dark Materials)

Best Young Actress: Dafne Keen (Lyra – His Dark Materials)

Best Ensemble Cast: The Crown

Best Hero: Jessica Jones (Played by Krysten Ritter)

Best Villain: Lex Luthor (Played by Jon Cryer)

Best Direction: The Crown

Best Writer: Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag)

Best Special Effects: Game of Thrones

Best Composer: Lorne Balfe (His Dark Materials)

Best Soundtrack: The Long Night (Ramin Dwajadi – Game of Thrones)

Best New Theme Tune: His Dark Materials (Lorne Balfe)

Best Animated Show: Big Mouth

Best Episode: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms (Bryan Cogman – Game of Thrones)

Best Scene: The Hound vs. The Mountain (Game of Thrones – The Bells)

Best Finale: Fleabag – Episode 6:

Next Up: You’ve had my film, video games and TV picks for the year, now it time for my thoughts on the best the past decade has had to offer…

Starting with my top ten films of the decade! Featuring Superhero smackdowns, cerebral character studies and fierce competition between the hits of DC and Marvel, hope you all check it out. Should be up in the next 3 days, depending on hangover status.

 

 

Stranger Things Season 3 Review

First Half of Review is spoiler-free. Second Half has full spoilers after warning.

Stranger Things is easily Netflix’s most popular Sci-Fi show. Black Mirror may be better, but Stranger Things seems to grow in popularity year on year. This is in large part to its fabulous cast, including the established veterans such as Winona Ryder and David Harbour, but also the incredible young cast (no weak links among them). Millie Bobby Brown has shot to stardom because of this show, and rightly so. The cast are as good as ever here. The show plays around with some of the established pairings and focuses on new ones – seeing Eleven (Brown) and Max (Sadie Sink)’s friendship blossom is one of the most entertaining parts of the early episodes, as well as a key part of Eleven’s character development (first female friend she’s really had). Dustin and Steve’s comedy bromance also returns, and is only enhanced by their adventures with snarky newcomer Robin (Maya Hawke) and Erica, Lucas’ precocious younger sister. While I took to Robin immediately, I wasn’t sure about Erica’s inconclusion till about the halfway point, where I began to warm to her (pairing her and Dustin up as a team really worked). Lucas and Mike get their share of moments too, but Will has the standout ones amongst the boys with Noah Schnapp nailing Will’s PTSD and struggles to adapt to the fact his friends has changed since previous seasons. If any characters are poorly served, its arguably Nancy and Jonathan – their storyline at the Hawkins Post newspaper may have a political point to prove, but it isn’t that entertaining or even interesting. Fortunately, by episode 5 they’re back helping the youngsters and instantly get better material to deal with.

Visually, the show looks as good as ever (has Netflix ever hired a bad director? Yet to see it – BBC take note) and the special effects are great throughout. The new monster is far more imposing and memorable than the Demodogs in Season 2, but is somewhat undermined by the fact it doesn’t kill anywhere near as many as the less-powerful Demogorgon in Season 1 managed. Still, its horrific in its design and inventive in how it gets created, so I won’t criticise it too much. Arguably the season’s human villains are more memorable, particularly the grizzled, Schwarzenegger-esque thug who has several brutal fights with Hopper over the course of the season.

The humour can be hit and miss (Dustin’s group gets the best of it, Mike and Lucas less so) but mostly it works well and establishes a lighter tone. Arguably too light – while the writers were clearly deliberately drawing a line between the light-hearted, hormonal teen dramas and the horrific mind flayer plot, it ends up slightly jarring – seasons 1 and 2 were more consistently dark in tone, but with great lashings of charm and humour to lighten the mood. I have to say I preferred that approach – this season is entertaining, but it lacks the persistent tension of earlier sessions (at least for the first four episodes – the last four were definitely better balanced and to my mind, more effective). Ultimately though, the writers do a good job – the character arcs all make sense and feel realistic and earned, and while there are undoubtedly plot holes and conveniences, they tend to be minor blips rather than irritating missteps.

Overall, its an entertaining, visually splendid instalment of one of Netflix’s best shows. The writers keep the plot grounded for the most part, and showcase the talent of the wonderful actors involved. However, for all that, its probably my least favourite of the three – but given how good the first two were, that doesn’t mean all that much. Just don’t make us wait as long for season 4, okay Duffer Brothers?

For those of you wishing to avoid, spoilers, my season rating is below, so stop there.

Rating: 4 out of 5

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW!!! DON’T READ ON UNLESS YOU’VE SEEN THE FINALE!!

Kudos to Dacre Montgomery – he made Billy someone you could empathise with and even feel a bit sorry for – which isn’t easy when he was so unlikable in season 2 and helped the mind flayer (unwillingly or not) kill a lot of people in S3. Sadie Sink in particular helps us care about Billy’s fate – whatever the issues between them, its clear that Max wants to save her step-brother if she can, which only makes his heroic sacrifice to save Eleven all the more tragic. His death wasn’t exactly a surprise – I’d called well before the season started, but it hit hard nonetheless.

Somewhat surprisingly, so did Alexei’s. Given that he was working for the bad guys and seemed quite a dick in episode 6, the show did well to make us care about him. His banter with Murray and his obvious joy at experiencing an American Fair did much to humanise him – which made his callous execution all the more horrific.

But obviously, the big hit is Hopper. He wasn’t particularly likeable this season, but ultimately, he was there to do the right thing, and this time, his decision to risk all in the final episode cost him. At least, we think it did. The post-credits scene in Russia cast some doubt on his death, but Hopper isn’t the only possibility for the American prisoner. Who knows – maybe the Russians snatched Murray after their base was shut down. Or maybe, just maybe… Eleven’s Father from S1 isn’t dead. Hell, if they know about Eleven, it might even be her Mother they’ve kidnapped or maybe her ‘Sister’ 8 from Season 2. To be honest, any of those options is preferable to Hopper – its too obvious and too easy a way out. Besides – could you imagine the effect on Eleven if she believes its Hopper they’ve got and it turns out to be Father instead? That would really be a great twist for S4.

Next: Reviews of other Netflix titans, such as Jessica Jones, Black Mirror and Orange is the New Black will follow in the next few weeks – along with Spiderman: Far from Home.

 

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Season 3 Review

Starring: Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Warburton, Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, Presley Smith and Lucy Punch

Warning: Minor Spoilers Follow

I wasn’t all that impressed with the first season of Netflix’s adaptation. Sure, it was entertaining in its way and better than the film, but let’s be honest, that isn’t hard. The second season picked up a bit, but mainly because it was based on some of the better books in the series (and even then, it’s Vile Village adaptation was dire). Fortunately, it’s a case of third time lucky for Netflix. I don’t know whether or not its that the scriptwriters just kicked things up a gear or the fact that these episodes are based off the best books in the series or that because the final season its more focused on wrapping things up in a satisfying way, but this one WORKED!

Neil Patrick Harris, now freed from the need to play a different version of a disguised Olaf every week, is at his best here. Olaf is menacing, OTT, world-weary and maniacal, sometimes all in the same scene, and he generally carries it off with aplomb. Malina and Louis are as perfect as ever as Klaus and Violet, and Patrick Warburton finally feels like a worthwhile addition to the series. The direction and look of the thing is as great as ever, but crucially, the scripting feels a bit tighter, and boy does that make a difference. Notably, the episodes are a bit shorter than previous seasons, which seems to have been a smart decision. There’s noticeably less padding and everything just flows better.

There’s still the odd change from the books which doesn’t really strike you as necessary, but by and large, its a pretty faithful adaptation of events. But there’s one bonus here book readers will love – you finally get answers that the books, crucially, did not give you. Flashbacks in the Penultimate Peril two-parter really help to flesh out the schism, the sugar bowl, Olaf’s turn from Volunteer to Villain and Lemony and Kit Snicket’s characters. Kit Snicket is perfectly cast as well, which is crucial seeing as she’s so important to the last few books. The other bonus is the welcome return of Carmelita Spats, who is perfectly done and is endlessly entertaining when onscreen. Lucy Punch isn’t quite as memorable as Esme as she was last season, but she still gets the odd moment.

It’s not perfect by any means – Phil still seems miscast, the Violet and Quigley subplot seems rushed and the decision to spare the bald man and the henchperson of indeterminate gender last season doesn’t really serve any purpose, but for the most part, this is a big improvement over the last two seasons. But for everything that doesn’t work, there’s plenty that does. Usman Ally nearly steals the show as the hook-handed man, while the Klaus and Fiona subplot works very believably.  The Man with Beard but no hair (played by Richard E. Grant) and the Woman with Hair but no Beard make a great set of villains to throw both Olaf and the Orphans off balance in this series as well.

Overall, Netflix finally manages to strike the right tone and conclude the series in an engaging, satisfying way. The cast give their all and the writing’s stepped up a gear from last season. The flashbacks alone give book readers a reason to check this out – it really answers any questions the books ever left you wondering…

Rating: 4 out of 5

The theme tune really is catchy isn’t it?

10 Things to watch out for in 2019

Before I get to my traditional ‘Best of Year’ articles, I thought i’d take some time to do a preview of the likely hits that 2019 might give us. While this type of article is pretty common for this time of year, I’ve never done one before, but I thought I’d try my hand at it. So without further ado, here’s my pick of what films, TV and gaming to watch out for in 2019.

1.Game of Thrones, Final Season: Season 7 really upped the scale of events in Thrones and gave us cinematic battle sequences and long-awaited character interactions into the bargain. Now Season 8 has 6 hour-plus long episodes to wrap everything up. With the White Walkers finally past the wall, expect huge scale battles and significant character deaths. However it ends, its sure to be unmissable television.

2. Avengers: Endgame: Infinity War broke all kinds of records and finally, FINALLY delivered a truly great villain for the MCU. That said, it wasn’t a flawless film, even if it was extremely entertaining. But it set the stage for this: the final Avengers film (at least for this group of Avengers). With a high probably that Iron Man and Captain America will either die or bow out at the conclusion, this might finally be the Marvel film where there are actual consequences. But whatever the fate of the heroes, its another 3 hours (supposedly) of Thanos, and that alone makes it worth seeing.

3. Captain Marvel: Marvel finally gives us a female-superhero movie. Brie Larson certainly looks the part, and the trailer really gives you a sense that there’s some ambition in this one. Expect it to lead straight into Avengers: Endgame too. Throw in a significant role for Samuel L. Jackson, and this could be Marvel’s best origin story since X-Men: First Class. Its only real hurdle is it has to live up to Wonder Woman. Speaking of which…

4. Wonder Woman 1984: One of the two good Worlds of DC films (aside from Man of Steel) finally gets a sequel. With iconic Wonder Woman foe cheetah and a no-doubt rousing soundtrack from Hans Zimmer, this might finally be the film where DC turns the tide. Or it could be the final nail in its coffin if DC screw it up. Either way, its Wonder Woman, so you know its worth a shot.

5. The Last of Us, Part 2: After the first Last of Us and the Uncharted Games, expectations are sky-high for this PS4 exclusive next year. Not only does Naughty Dog have a great track record, but the first game is still one of the best we’ve had this decade. With the same mix of epic storytelling and zombie survival horror, I’ve got very high hopes for this one.

6. The Outer Worlds: Made by Obsidian, this looks like it could be the Dark Horse of gaming releases in 2019. Not only is it the product of the brains behind Fallout: New Vegas (AKA one of the best Fallout games) but it looks like a mash-up between Borderlands and Fallout. That can only be a good thing. We haven’t have a good sci-fi RPG since Mass Effect 3 came out.

7. Stranger Things, Season 3: With House of Cards finished, most Marvel shows cancelled and Orange is the New Black drawing to a close, Stranger Things is kind of Netflix’s last standout show. Its also the best Sci-Fi show on television right now (admittedly not hard when its up against Star Trek: Discovery and Chibnall’s bastard version of Who) with one of the best young casts in television and superb support from Veteran actors such as Winona Ryder and David Harbour. With an incredibly catchy theme, a great soundtrack and brilliant special effects, you’d be mad to miss it.

8. Metro: Exodus: Since there is suddenly an unexpected market for a decent post-apocalyptic RPG game, Metro: Exodus seems likely to do very well next year. The Metro series has always had an interesting story, set in the tunnels underneath a nuclear devastated Russia, it had a pretty unique tone and feel. With Exodus its third and easily most ambitious entry, this not only looks set to pick up many disaffected Fallout fans, but also has little competition in the February release window. I’d put money on it doing quite well so long as they don’t botch the release (looking at you Bethesda).

9. Orange is the New Black, Final Season: Netflix’s longest running hit finally comes to a close in 2019. While the last few seasons have been divisive, I’ve loved them, and I’ll be sad to see it go. With several characters fates up in the air after S6, it’ll be interesting to see how they wrap it all up. With the usual mix of comedy, drama and heartache, i’m sure it’ll be a memorable ride.

10. Star Wars, Episode IX: After the critically successful but audience divisive Force Awakens and Last Jedi, Disney has a fight on its hands to bring the Star Wars fanbase back into balance. With yet another film which had to change director halfway through (this time bringing back J.J. Abrams to replace Colin Trevorrow) we know very little about how this will go. Will it be a Rogue-One-esque triumph? A Force-Awakens style remake of Return of the Jedi with plenty of style but no substance? An innovative yet divisive entry that keeps fans guessing like Last Jedi? (yeah right, this is Abrams. The guy hasn’t had an original idea ever aside from how to overuse lens-flares). Or will it be irrelevant and will audiences just stay home like they did for Solo? Wherever it ends up, it will either be the end of an era or the moment the Star Wars franchise goes back on hiatus. So either way, its going to be an unmissable end to 2019!

The three things I’m most hyped for at this point have to be The Last of Us Part 2, Avengers: Endgame and Stranger Things S3, but who knows – one of the others may pleasantly surprise me and outdo all my expectations. Either way – 2019 is definitely looking good in the entertainment industry (which is reassuring, since the outlook is dire everywhere else!).

Next Up: My look at the best and worst films that have released in 2018, with TV and Video Game articles close behind…

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

 

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.