Skins UK – The First Two Series

Title: Skins UK

Genre: Contemporary Dramedy

Watched: First Two Series, October 1-11, 2011

Summary: Surprisingly addictive character study

_

I wouldn’t have expected to like this — other than the promised nudity — but it was rather sly. Plus, being on Netflix streaming it was “free.” This ensemble show follows nine or ten British sixteen-seventeen year-olds studying, loving, and partying (not in that order) somewhere in nowhere Western England. Each episode picks a particular cast member to focus on, using them as a POV into the group dynamics.

While Skins borrows techniques from documentary and reality television, in that it has an extremely young and inexperienced cast and little in the way of sweeping dramatic arc, it still manages to be extremely gripping for one simple reason:

The characters are well written.

While there is plenty of drama and incident in their lives, and the show does touch on all sorts of issues (teen pregnancy, eating disorders, dysfunctional families, parental death, parental neglect, religion, sexuality — both orientations, race, drug use, health, relationships, etc. etc) none of it feels particularly forced. Not at all like the whiplash effect of an overproduced show like Gossip Girl where the writers strain every character to — and beyond — the breaking point of believability in their quest to feed the flames of constant conflict. In Skins, it feels more like the characters have separate identities that organically drive the plot. Which is as it should be. It’s a fallacy to think that conflict alone drives interest in a story. Sure you need the friction between desire and the character, but without believable — and likable — characters, conflict isn’t worth anything.

But all the Skins characters are pretty likable, and quite varied. We forgive them their idiot decisions, their wanton self-destructive behavior, because they have a certain naive goodness about them. But there is a lot of self-destructive behavior. One of the talked about things about this show is the pretty enormous amount of nudity, drug use, sex, and all that goodness. While the nudity is rarely very erotic, mostly consisting of boy butt or the occasional swinging nad-sack, there is a lot of it. And the drinking, smoking, and drug use is pretty constant (“spliff” is a favorite word). Even the fourteen year-old little sister is staying out all night and shooting heroin. But this stuff doesn’t dominate the story, instead adding a train-wreck fascination. Now I can only hope this isn’t a realistic portrayal of the “average” British teen, who I suspect probably won’t even handle that kind of youthful debauchery as well as even these flawed characters. But I have no idea. Another constant in the show are the broken families. While some of the parents are good and well meaning people, there is only one character (Dev Patel, in his  pre-slumdog debut) with a working pair of them. We have everything from single parents, to lunk-head parents, to pill-popping parents, to hippy-no-attention parents, to none at all. No wonder these kids have so many problems.

A final thing that made this show extra fascinating was the slightly exotic British factor. The semi-suburban 21st Century England depicted is an interesting reminder that America isn’t the only country with its decadent first-world problems. The accents are cute, the slang even more so, and the peculiar British youth fashions — looking as they do like technicolor hip-hop goes La Cage Aux Folles — endlessly entertaining. The directing is stylish too, with nice use of music and weird camera work to emphasize mental state. A favorite moment for me was when Hannah Murray’s fey character is amusing herself by walking her fingers along a guardrail. The camera keeps the fingers in focus at constant distance while the background swirls behind. You have to see and hear the effect, but it had a wonderful playful mood consistent with the POV. Also no wonder the actress was cast for Season 2 of Game of Thrones, as the equally crazy Gilly.

I haven’t checked out the short running and supposedly worse MTV version of this show, but I suspect it failed to capture that elusive formula from the original: good writing = good characters.

For more of my posts on TV, click here.

Game of Thrones – Episode 8

Title: Game of Thrones

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Watched: Episode 8 – June 30, 2011

Status: First Season now airing on HBO

Summary: Oh boy, it’s coming

ANY CHARACTER HERE

I had to delay watching the last three episodes of the show for a month while suffering on vacation in Italy (travel log here). Even after being up for 36 hours I binged through two of the three after unpacking.

Episode 8,  “The Pointy End.” The last third of the season, or even last half, is all about grinding out the consequences of positions and choices made in the first half. Many of these lead to additional hasty decisions that will also have repercussions. Also it is worth noting that this episode is actually penned by George R. R. Martin himself, which is fitting because it’s one where the character arcs are really pivoting.

One of the great things about Martin’s novels are how believable these difficult choices are for the characters. They don’t see the future, aren’t even always aware of all that the reader is, and even more importantly, are filtered through their own biases and priorities.

We open with the play out of the season’s most central pivot, that Ned’s attempt to show the queen and her children mercy leads to disastrous results for his family and for the realm as a whole. His entire household in King’s Landing is slaughtered, and Sansa is captured. But Arya, training with her “Dancing Master” Syrio is not so undefended. Syiro is a favorite character and he is played delightfully by Miltos Yerolemou in the show. I do think that — like many scenes in this episode — that the production felt a little TV. Syiro holds off about five Lanister guards with a wood training sword, which is bad ass, but the choreography could have used just a little more punch. There just wasn’t enough zing to his movements. Still he kicks butt and his final line, “And what do we say to the god of death?” -> “Not today” is awesome. Similarly Arya’s all important stabbing of the stable boy felt a little flabby. Or maybe it was just by mood (very tired).

Ned is briefly visited by Varys in the dungeon, and I do love this portrayal of the spider. Instead of the interior monologue of the novel their conversation is used to expose the central crux of his moral journey: The fact that his mercy (toward Cersei) lead to his downfall, and that he must now chose between family and principles — and they aren’t good choices either way. We also have some wonderful background on Varys.

The news of events in the capital is spreading, linking the separate story-lines together. Jon is forced to cope with his own choices and loyalties between family and duty. We even see a bit of ghost! And then he gets to fight the white walker. This was pretty cool, but again, as I felt with a lot of this episode (but not about Episode 9) lacked a tiny bit of gravitas (not to mention Morment’s raven — boo!). But it’s still important as it really starts to establish his role with the Black Brothers.

In Winterfell Robb must deal with the imprisonment of his father, being forced to become the man he knows he should be. This is well handled, and there is a pretty good sense of him coming into his own. Theon is well set up. In the books he is extremely minor in book 1, but clearly the producers have chosen him as a character to emphasize in seasons 2 and 3. We have a bit of Bran in this part of the arc too. Somehow in the second two thirds of the show Bran feels much more absent than he does in the novels (as there he has all the POV for Winterfell). This brings him back a little, but I would have liked more emphasis on the wolves and the dreams. I’m coming around to Osha a bit though — even if she has crazy hair.

Tyrion and Bronn make their way out of the Vale. Their dialog is first rate as always, and they have their encounter with the mountain men. This too felt a little TV as they just couldn’t show enough men. You see about fifteen, but it really wanted at least 150, a real camp, and more of a sense of ferociousness.

Across the sea Dany is coming down off the high of being promised the world by Drogo to see a bit of the reality of what it really means to be a war leader. The Dothraki are slaughtering the “lamb people” and she tries to put a stop to the rape of some local women. This is a decision that for her will bring momentous change, continuing the theme illustrating the dangers of mercy. We also meet the witch, who looks like some Italian mother from Brooklyn. Like the other big scenes, and many of the Dothraki scenes in the whole show, this little battle felt crimped by the TV budget. Just not large enough or dynamic enough. Drogo’s fight however, defending his manhood and her honor, is pretty awesome. Jason Momoa has some real charisma, and I’m looking forward to the new Conan. He pulls off the very personal manly man-ness (guy-liner and all) to good effect.

The episode concludes softly with the dismissal of Ser Barristan, which is very well handled. You get a real feel for Cersei and this unctuous Joff overextending themselves. Barristan is wonderful too, along with Jaime the only developed member of the Kingsguard.

The plotting  and characters of this story are just so good. Everyone is in motion, in conflict all the time, but not just the kind of meaningless Transformers 2 style conflict, but real honest to goodness stuff that tests their fundamental values.

Reviews of previous episodes: [ Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5, Episode 6, Episode 7 ]

Or the next Episode 9.

Or find out about my own fantasy novel, The Darkening Dream.

Game of Thrones – Episode 7

Title: Game of Thrones

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Watched: Episode 7 – May 22, 2011

Status: First Season now airing on HBO

Summary: The pivot of action and consequence

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Episode 7,  “You Win or You Die.” In a lot of ways, this episode is the biggest pivot of events in the maelstrom of plot shifts. While Game of Thrones took it’s time setting up the characters in the first four episodes, 5-7 are a whirlwind of motion. Consequences are the theme.

Because this episode is only on hbogo (for a week) and their are less summaries on the web, I’ll cover the scenes in more detail than usual. So spoiler alert (for this episode).

We open with Jamie and his father Tywin in a military camp, Lord Lannister. The excellent casting continues. They have a lengthy discussion while Lord T butchers a stag. This show uses the repeated device of putting explanatory dialogue on top of certain background but intense actions, like sex in a brothel, or Renly’s shaving. Here the butcher’s work is displayed in considerable detail, adding a nasty factor to the whole scene. We also observe just a bit of what Jaime has to deal with in his home life, and why doing the right thing hardly comes naturally to a Lannister. Oh, and the irony of Lord Tywin skinning a stag… sigil of house Baratheon, is not lost.

Next, one of the most important scenes in the book (and the series). Ned confronts Cersei in the garden, letting her know that he knows about the illegitimacy of her children. He gives her a chance to flee. Of course, he underestimates her, one should never corner a lion. All along, Ned’s honor, his need to do the RIGHT thing by a strict definition of the rules, rather than a flexible political definition, proves to be his achilles heel. This act of honorable mercy, in tipping his hand, more than anything else sets the entire war (which Robert predicted was coming) in motion.

Then we cut to Littlefinger in his whorehouse, training a newly arrived Ros and some other vixen. This earns the episode its nudity in spades. It’s also the same basic mechanic as used with the stag. Still this dialogue, where he slightly unnaturally confesses some of his youthful lessons in life to the whores, reveals a bit more of his complex character. This scene is new to the show, as the information contained here is revealed in Cat’s memory in the book.

We have more Theon exposition back at Winterfell as he attempts to tease Osha and is instead mocked. They are going to very considerable lengths to detail Theon’s background in this season, whereas in the books he barely has a role until Book 2. Osha seems too pretty to me, not hard enough looking.

Then we have Sam and Jon on the wall, where they see an riderless horse returning. They go down to find it’s uncle Benjen’s. Uh oh.

Back to King’s Landing where Renly rushes in to tell Ned that Robert’s been hurt hunting. We then see the injured king and Joff (hiss), and Ned and crew enter. The king shows off his nasty wound, and drives everyone but Ned out. He then writes a letter up making Ned Lord Protector and Reagent, and regrets his decision to have Dany killed (another decision that will have consequences!). When Ned steps out, Lord Varys (his performance is delicious) throws the blame Lancel’s way. Barristen the Bold is here too, and his character has been built up decently — although he’s the only member of the Kingsguard that is, other than Jaime.

Then across the sea, Dany and Drogo are chatting in Dothraki. Boy has their relationship changed. She’s playful and comfortable with him. But he does indicate that he thinks thrones are for sissies. And this from a man wearing way too much eye liner?!? Then Dany goes shopping at the crazy pseudo-middle-eastern bazaar. Some talk with Jormont, and he goes off to pickup his spy message from Varys’ agent — proving what we already knew, that he’s a double agent. Dany meets up with a wine seller from Westeros, and he offers to give her a special gift. But Jormont really is a double agent because he’s suspicious, and saves Dany from being poisoned. This scene has a slightly cheesy feel, as this is a whacky way to assassinate someone, as it depended on the coincidence of Dany stopping by for a drink.

Back to castle Black, where Jon and crew get a speech from the Lord Commander — again, where’s his bird? I loved the bird, and it wouldn’t have added any screen time to keep him. Save with the wolves. This bugs me considerably as in the books each of the boys at least has a completely integral relationship with their wolf, and the beasts are barely shown. In any case, Jon get appointed a steward rather than a ranger. He’s pissed. But Sam sees it for what it is, as he is to assist the Lord Commander directly. Sam is very well cast, and he’s likable, funny, and believably lousy as a solider.

Then back to King’s Landing where Renly is the first to attempt to convince Ned that practicality is more important than honor. If Joff is out of the succession, then that makes Stannis, the older brother of Renly and Robert, but not shown, the king. No one likes him. He has, as Loras said in Episode 5, “the personality of a lobster.” But Ned and his honor are on a unstoppable train. Renly presents detour #1, favor him as king.

But Ned sends a message to Stannis. Then enter Littlefinger to present door #2, make peace with the Lannisters and rule the kingdom as Joff’s Reagent — and Littlefinger’s assistance. Really, this is a pretty attractive looking door, and Littlefinger sells it so well. But alas.

Jon and Sam swear before the old gods. But first we see Ghost for about two seconds, and he’s cute, but where’s he been? The tree itself, with its bleeding eyed face is cool. The words of the oath suitable bleak. Loved it. The man hugs at the end were a bit cheesy though.

Dany and Jormont talk about the failed assassin’s unpleasant fate and Drogo enters.  He is another consequence, as Drogo swears before his gods and the stars to cross the narrow sea and give his bride her father’s throne back. Nicely done, and the Dothraki oath swearing was awesome. Lesson: if you attempt to kill your rival queen, don’t fail.

Then Ned is told of Robert’s death, and he plans with Littlefinger to get the guards anyway so that when he confronts the queen, he has some muscle. They then proceed into the throne room for a nice confrontation, which plays out very nicely. More consequences come back to haunt everyone as the straightforward and honorable Ned is out maneuvered again — caught in the snare of his own honor. Leaving us on a pretty serious cliffhanger. Joff is such a twat, I can’t wait for his wedding.

Absent this week: Tyrion, Cat, Bran, Arya, Sansa. The Lord Commander’s bird and all the direwolves except for two seconds of Ghost.

Overall the episode is great, packed with action and consequences again. We again have four out of the five threads (and really mostly the three: Dany, King’s Landing, and Jon). The note taking distracted me a little, I need to sit down and watch it again without all that.

Reviews of previous episodes: [ Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5, Episode 6 ]

and of Episode 8, 9 or 10.

Or my review of A Dance With Dragons.

Or find out about my own fantasy novel, The Darkening Dream.

Game of Thrones – Episode 6

Title: Game of Thrones

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Watched: Episode 6 – May 22, 2011

Status: First Season now airing on HBO

Summary: Unrelenting!

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Episode 6,  “A Golden Crown.” The blast off that began last week with Episode 5 continues on full burn with Episode 6. The whole episode is pretty much wall to wall tension.

Unlike the first 4 episodes, exposition has been striped down to almost nothing. And after a week in absence, Dany and the Dothraki return with a vengeance. On her arc we see her eating an entire horse heart raw in a ritual to sort of anoint her son the prince in-vitro. Like the dragon, she sheds the skin of the vulnerable little girl. Even her crazy brother is aware of this, and it cripples his own hopes leading to the climatic and namesake scene.

In parallel, we have the resolution of Tyrion and the Eerie storyline. The Imp also comes into his own power, using his tongue to outfox both the imbecile turnkey Mord and the lady of the Vale herself. There’s both excellent dialogue and fun action in these scenes. My favorite line being, “You don’t fight with honor!” and the answer “No, he did,” pointing at the dead loser.

Jon takes a by for the second week in a row, but in Winterfell, we have a bit of development with Robb, Theon, and Bran, who is now outfitted with his special saddle that allows him to ride even without his legs. This leads to a pretty decent scene introducing Osha, although her hair and makeup looks more like Titiana in some production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is also yet another mysterious opportunity to show off Ros the hooker’s money (in the victorian sense).

The Dany, Tyrion and King’s Landing segments have roughly equal weight. Back in the capital, Robert has gone hunting (excuse for a little more fun between him and brother Renly) and Ned, reinstated as hand, is left to run the country. He starts by making another move against the Lannisters, opposing the actions of the mad giant the Mountain. For the novice viewer, this scene may seen a tad mysterious as well, as it serves to set up major actions and players in book 2 and 3. Arya continues some excellent work with Syrio. Then we have my least favorite scene in the episode, the only one I didn’t like, where Sansa is a bitch to her governess, and then that shit of a prince shows up to pretend to be nice to her. I’m not even sure this is in character after he’s been such a little prick to date.

The whole hour oozes tension and there are lots and lots of great moments. Four of the five story-lines are weaving here, and it feels fairly seamless except for one or two cuts.

Robert stands out as always, “killing things clears my head.” Tyrion and Bronn both, establishing this relationship that will continue for a while. Tyrion’s “confession” is a delight, particularly the part about the turtle stew! Dany with the heart is great, and the chanted Dothraki. I’ve always been a sucker for oracles, and “the stallion that mounts the world” and “a prince rides within me” bits gave me goosebumps. We do finally get a bit of sense of Dothraki culture her, just a bit. And the final scene with Viserys is touching and very well played.

The next episode, 7 is available a week early on hbogo! So my review here.

Reviews of previous episodes: [ Episode 1Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4, Episode 5 ]

And here for my review of Episode 7.

Or find out about my own fantasy novel, The Darkening Dream.

The Sopranos – Season 3

Title: The Sopranos- season 3

Genre: Comedy / Drama

Stars: James Gandolfini (Actor), Lorraine Bracco (Actor), Alan Taylor (Director), Allen Coulter (Director)

Watched: Second season: May 4-May 12, 2011

Status: Six seasons, series finished

Summary: Still flying high

ANY CHARACTER HERE

Season 3 continues to groove on the rhythm established in season 2. There aren’t any big shake ups in the formula, but by concentrating on the mob action and the relationships, it remains outstanding. There is, I think, a slight notch up in the humor. While things maintain a pretty serious level of violence, some of the episodes just seemed a bit funnier in a clever understated way.

The season starts off with the highly amusing and stylized efforts of the FBI to bug the sopranos house — really a clever reintroduction to the characters in disguise. Joe Pantolanio shows up to give us Ralph, the guy who Guido the Killer Pimp grows up to be. He serves to replace Richie as Tony’s designated pain in the ass. He’s funny (and tragic, but not for him), but he isn’t quite as interesting a figure. Mom takes a most appreciated (I found her funny but annoying) permanent vacation. There are arcs with Meadow at college and her boyfriends, with Jackie Jr, with Dr Melfi, with Christopher.

Structurally this arcs are more spread out, crossing most of season, or at least several episodes. This isn’t yet The Wire or Game of Thrones where the episodes are just arbitrary blocks of a much longer story, but it’s getting closer. Still the sense of a bigger arc for the entire season is more muted than in season 2 (where the dual “Big Pussy as informant” and “Richie makes trouble” arcs served to anchor the season).

There are some good shocker moments too like in “Employee of the Month.” I also really enjoyed the gang antics in “Pine Barrens.”

The dominant theme continues to be the co-existence of family and personal life with violence. The balance of this rather realistic portrayal and dark humor is as pretty fucking brilliant. Despite the comedy and violence, the characters feel very very real, and I think that’s the secret of the show’s success.

Also interestingly, each season ends with an Aprille death. Although the last episode is a bit of a letdown.

For my review of season 1

or season 2, see here.

Game of Thrones – Episode 4

Title: Game of Thrones

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Watched: Episode 4 – May 8, 2011

Status: First Season now airing on HBO

Summary: Amazing!

ANY CHARACTER HERE

With Episode 4,  “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things,” the enormous narrative of Game of Thrones begins to pick up speed. Still, it’s amazing how much time this show needs to spend on characterization, which is a tribute to the enormous depth of such in the source material. Even streamlined, there’s just such a ridiculous number of interesting characters, each with their own pathetic stories.

The episode introduces Sam (fan fave from the books), Gendry, the Mountain that Rides, the annoying Bard, Bronn, Janos Slynt, Hodor, and even briefly shows Ghost (where’s he been hiding?). But it’s also packed with bits enhancing existing characters, big and small. One of my favorites is Littlefinger’s grim tale of the Mountain and the Hound’s “boyish games.” Good stuff, although by moving it the story from the Hound himself to Littlefinger, I wonder if the former’s complex character won’t be diluted — not to mention his peculiar but important relationship with Sansa.

The four main threads of the story continue to advance: Jon at the Wall, Dany with the horselords, Tyrion making his way home, and the central focus of Ned and the girls at King’s Landing. The first and the last are dominant here, getting 80-90% of the time. Perhaps because of it’s more contained scope, Jon’s story is the most complete, setting up camaraderie and threat in the Realms bleakest and most northern castle.

In Ned’s world, the plotting and complexities are starting to heat up even further in, and Arya — as usual — steals her one major scene.

For other fans of N and V (something I this show has plenty of), we have a great scene with sexy slave girl in the bathtub and a bit of jousting lance to the jugular.

And after last weeks less dramatic, but atmospheric ending, Episode 4 is back to a serious pivot. Cat’s little speech in the Inn was something I loved in the books, and it’s well done here too. I can’t wait to see the Eerie, which I suspect will be episode 6.

Reviews of previous episodes: [ Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3 ]

or here for Episode 5.

Click here for some trailers for and about the series.

Or find out about my own fantasy novel, The Darkening Dream.

The Sopranos – Season 2

 Title: The Sopranos- season 2

Genre: Comedy / Drama

Stars: James Gandolfini (Actor), Lorraine Bracco (Actor), Alan Taylor (Director), Allen Coulter (Director)

Watched: Second season: April 29-May 3, 2011

Status: Six seasons, series finished

Summary: Ups the ante

ANY CHARACTER HERE

With season 2, The Sopranos takes the formula they successfully developed in season 1 and really notches it up.

While the foundation of fun characters is great, fundamentally I think the improvement has to do with a slight toning down of the comic element (it’s still there, just slightly muted), and a concentration on the mob aspects at slight expense of Tony’s maternal and psychiatric relationships. It’s not to say that any major elements changed, the writers merely tuned up the balance.

The mob stuff is great this time around. First of all, we have a lot more violence. It actually feels pretty real. This underscores a fundamental aspect of the show, in that we are made to become very fond of a bunch of “cold hearted killers.” I’m not personally sure that this is unrealistic because everyone’s the hero in their own story. In any case, there are some great episodes here.

I particularly enjoyed “Commendatori” in which Tony, Chris, and Pauli go to Napoli for a little pow-pow with some old country gangsters. Having spent some time in Naples, this is extremely well handled, showing off that ancient city’s blend of violence, seediness, and beauty. “D-Girl,” is another really fun episode. This is predominantly a Christopher show, and in the first season his subplots were dull, but maybe it’s just living in Hollywood, or perhaps that I know Jon Favreau myself (he’s a friend of a friend), but I found it sexy and amusing.

A few new characters spice things up. I’m not that big a fan of Tony’s sister Janice, but Richie Aprile is awesome. Channeling a very short Al Pacino, he’s quite a character. This couple follow in Tony’s Ma’s tradition of stirring up trouble, both serious and comic. It all gets a little twisted — particularly his mafioso-style bedroom fetish.

Particularly in the first half of the season, there isn’t much for Dr. Melfi to do, and during the second she arcs in a way I didn’t find realistic. Family life and relationships are still paramount, but juicing up the crime intensity a bit, I felt improved the balance, moving things closer to the modern HBO style of great writing, great action, and shock.

For my review of season 1, see here.

For my review of season 3, here.

ps. What’s up with Meadow’s weight? It bounces around like a super ball. The rest of the cast (except for Christopher and his Jersey girl fiance) mostly stay what most of the characters would call, “fat fucks.”